No, It Wasn’t the “Dark Money”

Some people just loooooove the taste of sour grapes. Myself, I prefer to let them ripen before consuming, but Molly Gray and some of her devotees simply can’t help themselves. They’re shoveling fistfuls of the bitter things into their mouths like they’re consuming caviar.

And what’s left of Vermont’s political media is feeding this strange hunger by obsessing over the tide of big, out-of-state money spent on behalf of Becca Balint’s Congressional campaign. Seriously, they’ve missed a boatload of good stories about the primary, but they’re chasing this one like a starving dog sniffin’ roadkill.

So let’s start here. No, the last-minute flood of independent money didn’t make the difference. There is no way on God’s green earth that the outside expenditures created a 24 PERCENTAGE POINT MARGIN OF VICTORY. I’m sure they contributed a few points to the margin, but Balint would have won handily without a single outside dime.

She beat Gray fair and square. The longer Gray and her minions keep beating this drum, the longer it will take to rehabilitate her political reputation in Democratic circles. She’s already at serious risk of never eating lunch in this town again.

The latest breathlessly reported wrinkle to the outside-money tale is Seven Days’ revelation that the Victory Fund, an LGBTQ+ group, was able to pour a million-plus into a late blitz for Balint because they got a million-dollar earmarked donation from a crypto executive.

Which is completely legal. You may not like the current status of campaign finance law. Neither do I, but it’s the rules we play under until further notice. I don’t like the fact that Gray cashed in on her connections to the Beltway crowd, but she was absolutely within her rights to cast her line where the fish were biting.

The crypto donation clarifies something that seemed awfully strange to me: that the Victory Fund spent so much goddamn money in the closing weeks of the campaign, well after the start of early voting. They didn’t spend the money earlier because they couldn’t have; Crypto Bro made his donation on July 7, basically a month before the primary. The Victory Fund had to make a spending plan and execute it at warp speed. That’s why our mailboxes were stuffed full of Victory Fund flyers every day from mid-July onward.

In 2020, Democratic donors flooded the treasuries of Senate and House candidates down the campaign’s home stretch. The money came too late to buy TV ads in any quantity. Too late, in fact, for it to be spent strategically at all. The lesson from 2020, which Crypto Bro ignored, is that you have to make your decisions earlier in the cycle.

The even bigger thing the Gray conspiratorialists ignore is that Balint’s momentum was a long time building — and there’s clear evidence of that. She was ahead by a sizeable margin before the first cryptodollar was spent.

What evidence, you ask?

Let’s start with the two pre-election polls that both showed Balint way out in front. They were taken in the early to middle stages of the crypto-funded push. That kind of margin in a formerly close race simply doesn’t develop overnight. You don’t change the minds of 20-30% of the electorate with a few flyers that get tossed into the recycle bin on the way back from the mailbox. (Seriously, a crypto dude funding mailers? How delightfully retro.)

There’s also the quickening pace of Balnt’s fundraising. She had far, far more donors than Gray. That trend began in early spring and accelerated thereafter.

VTDigger data reporter Erin Petenko sliced this bologna another way, tracking the number of $200-plus donations to each candidate. Until the end of March, the two candidates were almost even in such donations. After that, Balint’s $200+ gifts shot through the roof while Gray’s inched upward. And that was happening, as Petenko noted, “even before key moments in the race, including state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale’s decision to drop out and endorse Balint, or Bernie [Sanders’ endorsement of Balint].”

Bernie’s nod was the crowning blow for Gray’s hopes. It happened on July 6, the day before Crypto Bro dropped his million. Bernie’s endorsement and subsequent rally tour with Balint were far more impactful than those mailers. (Gray didn’t help herself by attempting to put a dark spin on Bernie’s support for Balint. Considering how popular Bernie is in these parts, that was a big self-inflicted blow by Gray.)

You can see this in the county-by-county vote totals, about which I will have more to say later. For now, I’ll just point out that Balint absolutely cleaned up in Chittenden County, a.k.a Bernie’s backyard. She beat Gray by a nearly 2-1 margin in Vermont’s largest county.

Generally, there was a wide variation from county to county. Balint won decisively in Chittenden, Washington, and Windham counties. Gray ran better elsewhere. She won Essex and Franklin counties. She ran strongly in Bennington, Caledonia, Grand Isle, Lamoille, Orange, Orleans, and Rutland counties. If Balint’s victory was due to the crypto mailers, wouldn’t the margins have been more consistent from county to county? Instead, Balint did better on her home turf and in strong Democratic/Progressive areas. Gray did better in more conservative precincts.

Unless progressive voters and Brattleboro residents are uniquely vulnerable to the blandishments of campaign flyers, the county-by-county results represent each candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, not the effects of the mailer maelstrom.

Gray and her supporters suffered a shocking disappointment on primary night. It’s not surprising that they’re taking solace in the outside-money argument. But if they look at it with a clear political eye, they’ll have to admit that the crypto dollars couldn’t have accomplished anything more than turn a one-sided affair into a rout.

Gray lost. Balint won. That’s that.

6 thoughts on “No, It Wasn’t the “Dark Money”

  1. Eric

    What’s more remarkable is that every postmortem of this primary race fails to focus on the obvious factors. One, Balint had a great deal of demonstrated experience as an effective legislator, while Gray had none. Two, Balint had a well documented progressive voting record and well fleshed out policy positions while Gray did not. Three, Gray relied on her back story as a farm girl and legislative assistant in DC, but among Vermont Dems this cannot be considered a more compelling story than an openly gay, former teacher, and successful legislator who is the granddaughter of victims of the Holocaust, can it?

    And most importantly, polls showed Molly Gray was deeply unlikable to many Vermonters. That she came from a privileged background, had an elitist aura, and called every critical question in her Lt. Gov run “sexist” likely contributed to this. She felt to me very much like “Vermont’s Hillary Clinton.” in that she was using family friends, insider connections, minimal experience, and name recognition to get elected to a higher office.

    I imagine we will see Ms. Gray’s name on the ballot again someday. Clearly, her hubris prevents her from learning the lessons of this defeat. I’m not sure if I’m happy about that or not.

    Reply
    1. P.

      Your take on Gray is accurate. However, I have real issues with your depiction of Hillary Clinton. Please do not just repeat the media portrayal as it rhymes with betrayal. An actual non-biased research…I am not going to engage in this anymore and its not you personally. Too much baked in opinion regarding the Clintons. Respectfully yours,

      Reply
  2. Kip

    I believe your take on the Balint-Gray race is spot-on. Gray’s considerable appeal to Vermont voters suffered when she went negative on Balint.

    Reply
  3. Jessie Haas

    Balint ran as a different kind of politician, aka the risen Christ. She’s not that. She had to know that flood of cash wasn’t from a grassroots LGBTQ organization, especially as she had met with one of the brothers. ‘I don’t know that person. ‘ is carefully parsed. She met with his boss’s brother. Good old plausible deniability. She’s a good writer, but most people don’t realize it’s fiction.

    Reply

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