Vermont on brink of sending a woman to Congress for first time in state's history

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(NEW YORK) — With Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy retiring after 48 years in office and the state’s only representative, Peter Welch, hoping to fill his Senate seat after 16 years in the House, Vermonters are virtually certain to send a woman to Congress for the first time in the state’s history — with ABC News projecting that state Sen. Becca Balint will win her primary race on Tuesday.

Vermont, despite its progressive reputation among many given how Sen. Bernie Sanders towers over the local political landscape, is the last state in the nation to send a woman to Washington, partly because it’s had fewer opportunities with men like Leahy, Sanders and Welch serving for long stretches in the mere three congressional seats.

Balint, a former teacher-turned-legislator who has served in the Vermont Senate since 2014, gained popularity among progressive voters with endorsements from Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. (The co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream also backed her.) Since last year, she has served as president pro tempore of her state’s upper chamber — the first woman and first openly gay person in the position — and she was the Democratic majority leader for the four years prior.

She would also be the first openly gay lawmaker to represent Vermont on Capitol Hill.

“In my family, we know what’s at stake,” she said in a campaign video posted to Twitter last week, focusing on abortion and voting rights. “My grandfather was murdered in the Holocaust. My whole life I’ve known that beating the forces set on dividing us takes showing up every chance you get.”

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She announced on Dec. 13 that she would seek the Democratic nomination to succeed Welch and saw early enthusiasm, raising more than $125,000 within 24 hours of her announcement. Sanders endorsed Balint in July and held at least three rallies across the state to stump for Balint, who was leading in polls heading into the primary.

LGBTQ and progressive political action committees have spent more than $800,000 backing Balint, according to a report in VT Digger, which her leading opponent took aim at — arguing Vermonters should be deciding the race, not political groups.

She is projected to have won more votes than Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, another candidate seeking Welch’s seat, who touted her congressional ties to Welch and Leahy in her campaign.

Balint will go on to the November general election against a Republican challenger, though Vermont’s House seat has not been filled by a Republican in 30 years.

Both Balint and Gray said they support a national single-payer health care system, allowing Medicare to negotiate prices, as well as re-instating a nationwide assault weapons ban and funding federal paid family and medical leave, according to their websites.

But one way they differed was on how to handle the opioid crisis, which they both cited as an issue.

Balint said she supports so-called “safe injection sites” for drug users to prevent overdosing, while Gray had said she was “willing to consider” them.

Gray has a background in law and worked in Congress for five years, first for Welch and then for the International Committee of the Red Cross. Before being elected lieutenant governor last midterm cycle, she served as an assistant attorney general.

Balint also defeated physician Louis Meyers and former social worker Sianay Chase Clifford.

The leading candidates in the Republican primary for the at-large congressional district were Liam Madden, a Marine Corps veteran, and Ericka Redic, an accountant and podcast host, both native to the state.

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