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.
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.
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.
Sen. Bernie Sanders has gone and endorsed Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint in her bid for U.S. Congress. It’s not technically a violation of the unwritten rule against taking sides in a party primary because Bernie’s technically not a Democrat, but still.
It’s not the first time he’s done this, but it is the most impactful. In 2020 he endorsed David Zuckerman over Rebecca Holcombe in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, but he didn’t do so until July 27. The white smoke wafted up the chimney three weeks earlier this time, which is crucial because mail ballots are already in circulation.
I can only speculate on the why. Is this one last shot in the sub rosa contest of ideas between fiercely independent Bernie and loyal Democrats Leahy and Welch? It certainly reads like a power play — a contest to see who really captures the hearts and minds of Vermonters.
The less Machiavellian reading is simply that Sanders sees Balint as an ideological match, and Lt. Gov. Molly Gray as an unacceptably centrist candidate. My guess is that it’s mostly the latter, and the former is the cherry on top.
I don’t think Leahy or Welch will be willing to break the rule for their Chosen One. But I bet they’ll bend it some more by continuing to say nice things about Gray without actually endorsing, and keeping their networks active on her behalf.
That’s a big help, but Bernie’s public support is bigger.
Today’s State of the State Address was another exercise in Repurposed Content. Gov. Phil Scott is still leaning on the usual uncatchy catchphrases and political shibboleths, and recycling the same points he’s been making since 2015.
There ‘s not a lot new to say about this midwinter summer rerun, so I’m going to follow Governor Nice GuyTM‘s example and repurpose some old content myself. Because as Scott’s address made clear, it’s still true.
Last January, I wrote a post called “The Luckiest Man in Vermont,” which noted that Scott has rarely faced a political challenge in all his election campaigns. He floated to the top due to circumstance and his brand of bland, passive-aggressive charm. On top of that, the pandemic has given him a tremendous political gift.
I’m not talking about the credit he’s gotten, merited and otherwise, for his handling of Covid-19. I’m talking about the ever-flowing Niagara of federal relief funds buoying our economy and fattening public treasuries. Today’s speech re-emphasized that fact.
Friends and fellow Vermonters, cast your eye on a man who would replace Pat Leahy in Washington, D.C. No, it’s not Senator-In-Waiting Peter Welch, who is certain to win as long as he is still drawing breath come Election Day.
This, folks, is Kerry Patrick Raheb, independent Senate candidate, political conspiratorialist of the first water, wannabe cannabis entrepeneur, and shady investment advisor who has left a string of lawsuits in his wake. The flattering photo above is from his campaign website. (A DuckDuckGo image search turned up precisely one photo of Raheb from independent sources. Dude keeps a low profile.)
Raheb is one of the most colorful characters to grace our ballots in recent memory. He’s not quite Brock Pierce-level, but he’s not far off either.
His campaign website has the garish design sense of mid-period AngelFire. Cheesy graphics, eye-watering color combos, and even a countdown clock!!! (Counting the days, hours and seconds till Election Day.) I haven’t seen one of those in years. All that’s missing is an 8-bit version of “God Bless America” on autoplay.
Raheb’s sense of humor is reflected on a page called “Belches Corner,” a clever reference to Peter, um, Belch. Raheb’s fine grasp of policy can be seen in a passage on American energy independence. He says we’d achieved it under “the prior administration,” but that damn Joe Biden wiped it all out with an executive order canceling the Keystone XL pipeline.
You know, that pipeline meant to import Canadian oil into the States.
Well, he probably thinks of Canada as effectively a subsidiary of the U.S.A. so I guess its oil counts as domestic?
Hey, remember when technology millionaire Rich Tarrant decided to run for U.S. Senate? The year was 2006. Longtime incumbent Jim Jeffords was retiring; then-U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders ran to replace him. Tarrant entered the race as a Republican and spent big on a high-profile campaign that portrayed him as an Authentic Son of Vermont. Seven Days O.G. Peter Freyne dubbed him “Richie Rich” and uncovered the fact that Tarrant seemed to, um, live in Florida.
Tarrant’s candidacy was marked by heavy TV advertising and abundant missteps on the campaign trail. He ultimately spent $7 million on a race that saw Sanders edge him out by a mere 33 percentage points.
Well, Richie Rich is back — in spirit, not in the flesh. The new manifestation is Brock Pierce, the fellow pictured above. He’s filed papers as an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Pat Leahy. Pierce also seems to be on the Tarrant Track in terms of likely victory. That is, snowball’s chance in a hot place.
But he should provide some solid entertainment value if he commits to the race because his story is so damn weird that if he was a character in a novel, he’d be completely unbelievable.
How weird? Try child actor, failed entrepreneur, pedophilia allegations, Steve Bannon (!!!?!?!) and Bitcoin billionaire.
In a crowded Statehouse meeting room, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy announced that he will not seek re-election next year.
I’d heard of his decision from enough sources that I felt confident in writing it up last week, but I wasn’t entirely certain until he actually said it himself. “Marcelle and I have reached the conclusion that it’s time to put down the gavel,” he said. “It’s time to come home.”
He received standing ovations at the beginning and end of his statement from a few dozen Democratic bigwigs. The press were shunted off to one side, which did not allow for the slightest bit of social distancing. We were just part of the scenery; Leahy did not take questions from the peanut gallery.
And now the dominos begin to fall. But that’s a story for another day.
A major tectonic shift in the Vermont political world seems to be underway. If you listen closely, you can hear the rumblings.
According to the very active political grapevine, Sen. Patrick Leahy will not seek re-election, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch will run for his Senate seat, and at least three prominent Democrats are rushing to fundraise and assemble a team to run for Welch’s seat.
I’ve also heard from one good source that Gov. Phil Scott won’t run for re-election either. I’m not sure if I believe that; there’s no way he’d lose in 2022 unless the pandemic goes hog-wild (which is at least a possibility after the last two days’ case counts). But then, Scott isn’t your typical politico and isn’t motivated by the usual political impulses. Could be he’s feeling the strain of managing the pandemic for the better part of two years.
We’ll leave that aside for the moment and go back to Leahy. I’d expected him to run for another term for several reasons: He’d set the all-time record for Senate seniority in his next term, he’s at the pinnacle of power, and as chair of Senate Appropriations he can ensure a steady supply of federal dollars to Vermont.
Also, cynically, an elderly Senator can be propped up by a reliable staff, which Leahy has. But I don’t know his personal situation; looming health issues for him or wife Marcelle could easily lead him to step aside. Or maybe he just wants to enjoy some retirement time. Or maybe he thinks the Republicans will take control of the Senate in 2022. That’d make another term a lot less appealing.
Something stinks around here, and it looks like the Powers That Be are scrambling to keep anyone from identifying the source of the stench.
For those just tuning in, tonight’s VTDigger brings us the happy tidings of an agreement between federal prosecutors and Bill Stenger, one of the defendants in the EB-5 fraud case. The two sides have agreed on what evidence will be presented in Stenger’s case… and in exchange, Stenger’s lawyers won’t force a whole bunch of well-connected Vermonters to testify under oath.
See, Stenger’s defense had argued that state officials knew about the fraud long before it was publicly revealed and did nothing to stop it. Given the contents of a recent document dump, it’s clear that Team Shumlin knew a great deal and did their best to keep it under the rug. So their appearances under oath would have been at least embarrassing and perhaps incriminating.
The Vermonters in question include former governor Peter Shumlin and at least five top officials in his administration. They would have taken the stand next week, so this deal is a last-minute reprieve for these worthies. And yet another roadblock in the path of public disclosure. This fraud goes back at least a decade, and we’ve still only seen the faint outlines of official complicity.
Imagine, just for shits and giggles, Shumlin takes the stand and his testimony is at odds with the evidentiary record. Or he ducks the questions and pleads the Fifth. Not a good look, that.