The Democratic primary for U.S. Congress ended in a decisive victory for Becca Balint. She enjoyed a 23.6 percentage point margin of victory in what was expected to be a close contest. She cemented her status as a leading figure in the Vermont Democratic Party, and put herself in prime position to become the future leader.
There are a disgruntled few, however, who can’t seem to put the primary behind them. Meaning certain members of Team Molly Gray.
I hear this whenever I talk with anyone in Democratic circles or the state policy sphere. Malcontented Gray backers are, in the words of one advocate, “salting the earth.” They’re taking names and doling out threats as if they, um, actually run this joint. Which, having badly lost the primary, they decidedly don’t.
I’ve got a post sitting on the backburner called “We Have No Idea How Well State Government Performs.” The thesis is that Vermont’s government is woefully deficient in checks and balances. The Legislature is too slammed to do any green eyeshade stuff. The executive branch provides the bulk of the available information. The Joint Fiscal Office does some useful things and so does the auditor, but their reach is limited.
So we’ll probably never know who’s responsible for the monumental screwup with the Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance Program (VERAP). It’s out of money, folks. Rental assistance will diminish in a month and disappear entirely for thousands of households before the onset of winter. Oh, and utility assistance will end before the calendar turns to 2023.
According to the administration’s own numbers, 3,015 recipients will see their rental benefits end on September 30. Another 5,400 will get reduced benefits through the end of November, and then nothing.
The explanations on offer are threadbare, sheepish and inadequate. There are broad hints of administrative malfeasance.
This ought to be a scandal. Will it be? Based on past performance, probably not.
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.
Becca Balint’s one-sided primary victory leaves only token obstacles in her path to Congress. This is obvious.
What’s less obvious is that it puts Balint on track to become the most powerful person in Vermont Democratic politics. This is the extra dimension of the primary’s import. It was a hinge moment in the party’s progress.
Follow me, if you will, down a wary-too-soon but perfectly logical rabbit hole.
Patrick Leahy and Peter Welch are extremely powerful presences in the Vermont Democratic Party, more so than is visible publicly. (Bernie Sanders is treated with veneration but as a resolute independent, he doesn’t have the same level of influence.)
Leahy is about to exit the stage and take on an emeritus-equivalent position in the party. He’ll have a say as long as he draws breath, but he won’t have the power of the office anymore. His people took a huge hit in the primary. Most or all backed Molly Gray, or even worked on her campaign. They might never recover, especially given how negative Gray went in the closing weeks of the primary campaign. That won’t endear any of them to Balint.
The primary campaign was a rough one for the Vermont Republican Party. While the Democrats had enough good candidates to populate several robust primary contests, the Republicans offered the usual collection of unknowns, kooks and zealots in such low numbers that H. Brooke Paige reprised his ever-popular “run for a bunch of offices” ploy just to prevent Democrats from winning Republican nominations via handfuls of write-in votes.
Well, primary day has come and gone, and somehow things have gotten even worse for the VTGOP. First, we have the usual aftermath of the Paige maneuver: As he has done before, he withdrew from all but one race to allow the party to choose replacement candidates. Second, we have a Republican Congressional nominee who’s treating the nomination like it’s dogshit on the bottom of his shoe.
Back to the Paige situation. The VTGOP now has to scramble to find people willing to fill out the ticket even if they have no chance of winning and will barely even try. These are people who didn’t want to run in the first place. They’ll get a terribly late start on what will surely be underfunded, low-wattage efforts that might bear the slightest of resemblances to real, functional campaigns.
This has become SOP for the VTGOP, but it should be seen as the disgrace that it is. In a system with only two parties competing statewide, this Republican failure is not only bad for the party, it’s bad for democracy.
In addition to that, we have the embarrassment of a top-ticket nominee who wants nothing to do with the VTGOP.
Well, primary night turned out to be quite a bit less exciting than we thought. With a few exceptions, the races that seemed unpredictable weren’t, in the end, very close at all. What follows is a selection of post-midnight thoughts, none of which are about the gubernatorial race because the primaries were uncompetitive.
1. Those unbelievable polls were right about the Democratic primary for Congress. Becca Balint beat the metaphorical pants off Molly Gray. In the end, the margin was 23 percentage points. Remember back in January, when Gray had gotten off to a hot start and Balint was entering the race at the same time she had to manage the Senate Democratic Caucus? Seemed like Gray had the edge. Hell, it seemed like Balint might get squeezed between centrist Gray and progressive Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale.
I think Gray did have the edge at the time. So what happened? Balint caught fire with the Democratic electorate while Gray’s bio-heavy, policy-lite approach wore out its welcome. When it became clear that Balint was pulling ahead, Gray started flailing around, presenting herself as a pragmatist (be still, my heart) while depicting Balint as a Bernie Sanders clone. Yes, Bernie, Vermont’s most popular politician. Gray’s attack lines were implausible from the get-go. Did anyone really believe that Balint was an uncompromising ideologue or a captive of shady out-of-state money? No. For an attack to be effective, it has to be plausibly based in a candidate’s real or perceived weaknesses.
2. Everyone involved in Gray’s campaign has some soul-searching to do. Not only because they lost badly despite the very public blessing of St. Patrick Leahy, but also because they burned a lot of bridges in Democratic circles by going negative.
2a. Is this the end of Team Leahy’s dominance in Democratic politics? They bet big on Gray, and she rolled snake eyes. Leahy will remain a beloved figure but a sidelined one. His team, meanwhile, soiled themselves and dragged Leahy down with them. If there was any belief that they had the corner on political savvy in Vermont, well, that balloon has burst.
3. Oh Lord, the Republicans. They emerge from the primary with a statewide “ticket” of Gerald Malloy, Liam Madden, Phil Scott, Joe Benning, H. Brooke Paige, H. Brooke Paige, H. Brooke Paige, and H. Brooke Paige. The VTGOP now has a few days to cobble together a slate of candidates to supplant Paige, and none of them will have a prayer of a chance. Besides Scott, Benning is the only winner who’s not a walking, talking joke, and his campaign is operating on a shoestring. He’ll be a decent candidate, but he’s not going to win.
Three days after it posted a thinly-veiled endorsement of Molly Gray by an advisor to the Molly Gray campaign, VTDigger has thought better of it and taken it down.
Not sure why they did it, but to judge from the above Editor’s Note, lawyers may have been involved.
For those just joining us, on August 3 VTDigger posted a commentary by Carolyn Dwyer, longtime Pat Leahy consigliere and advisor to the Gray campaign, that laid out the attributes Dwyer wants to see in our next U.S. Representative. Those attributes closely tracked with Gray’s own biography. Dwyer also tried to posit Becca Balint as an “ideological warrior,” which is laughable considering that Balint has spent the past six years in Senate caucus leadership. In that position her first duty is to keep the caucus united, not impose her own policy vision. And the biographical note accompanying the essay failed to disclose Dwyer’s role in the Gray campaign.
I wrote up this adventure in journalistic carelessness soon after it happened. The next day, Digger rewrote the biographical note to include a reference to the Dwyer/Gray relationship.
Which only made posting the piece look worse, because it was a tacit admission that Dwyer was, in fact, promoting her candidate on Digger’s commentary page. That’s a no-no, and Digger has apparently realized that only three days late.
More signs of flailing from Lt. Gov. Molly Gray’s campaign for Congress. She’s now attempting the astounding feat of presenting herself as simultaneously (1) a paragon of Vermont values and (2) a Washington insider.
I dunno. Simone Biles might balk at that bit of gymnastics.
Gray’s last pre-primary (read: last) campaign ad leans heavily on her ties to Sen. Patrick Leahy, prominently featured, and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, who is named but not shown. Maybe Welch is being more judicious than his Senate colleagues and staying out of the primary. Or maybe, just maybe, he prefers Gray’s opponent?
But that’s not why I called you here on this muggy day. My purpose is to look at a couple of issues with Gray’s fundraising. The first is the portion of her war chest (obligatory “war chest” reference) that she can’t spend before the primary. The second is how much money this living embodiment of Vermont values has raised from inside the Beltway.
Curious thing happened today on VTDigger’s online dumpster commentary page. It was noteworthy for both its branding and its content.
The piece in question was written by Carolyn Dwyer, longtime Pat Leahy confidante and campaign manager. The headline: “What we need as Vermont’s federal delegation changes.”
What we need, according to Dwyer, is an unidentified individual who looks like Molly Gray, walks like Molly Gray, and quacks like Molly Gray. I assume Digger has a policy against actual endorsements on its commentary page, so Dwyer resorted to this cunning bit of subterfuge.
Before we get to the substance, I must address the brief identifier at the top of the essay.
This commentary is by Carolyn Dwyer of Burlington, a 25-year veteran of local and national Democratic politics. She has managed campaigns for Sen. Leahy and Congressman Welch and supported countless candidates for office at all levels in Vermont. She is not employed by any candidates for office in 2024.
Wait a minute. “Not employed by any candidates for office in 2024”?
What the blue hell?
UPDATE! Did someone at Digger read this piece? They’ve retroactively changed the Dwyer bio. Details below.
But seriously, Becca Balint’s latest campaign finance report is a wonder to behold. And it couldn’t be more different than Molly Gray’s.
The most dramatic number isn’t the bottom line, in which Balint outraised her Democratic rival in the race for Congress between July 1-20 by a margin of $145,000 to $65,000, putting her narrowly in the lead for the campaign to date. (And leaving her at a disadvantage in cash on hand, thanks to Gray’s lower spending.)
But that pales in comparison to the margin in unique donors, where Balint outguns Gray by basically a 12-to-1 margin.
Yes, I said twelve to one.
Balint’s FEC filing includes 6,548 “itemized receipts.” Gray’s: 532*. Balint’s campaign was absolutely flooded with donations in that 20-day period.
*Note: When a donor gives via ActBlue, the donation is credited to the donor AND to ActBlue. It’s counted once in the dollar total, but listed twice. There are a lot of these; many donors use ActBlue. So the number of donors is much lower than the number of “itemized receipts.” but that’s true for both campaigns. If Balint’s actual number of unique donors is 30-40% lower than 6,548, the same is true for Gray. The ratio remains more or less the same. Also, even if Balint “only” got donations from, say, 4,000 people in 20 days, that’s still incredible.
Balint’s list of donors is a remarkable thing. The vast majority of donors gave less than $100, and most of those gave $50 or less. Quite a few gave less than $10. There were very few large-dollar donations.