Democratic voters in Vermont’s primary election on Tuesday had a historic choice to make. The leading candidates for the state’s lone US House seat were the female lieutenant governor and the female leader of the state Senate. Never before in the state’s 231 years had anyone other than a white man won that election. In this contest, there were two women.
In the end, state Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint easily bested Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray by a nearly 2 to 1 margin, the more progressive candidate topping the more moderate one.
Balint is the heavy favorite in the November general election against Liam Madden, an Iraq war veteran, who won the Republican nomination on Tuesday. Republicans haven’t won a congressional race in Vermont since 1988. Should Balint win, she would not only be the first woman but also the first openly gay person the state has elected to Washington.
That Vermont, one of the most politically progressive places in the country, was the last place to send a woman to Congress might seem odd. But, in truth, this glass ceiling was less about politics than it was about pure opportunity.
Vermont only sends three people to Washington – two US Senators and a single member of the House – and those elected to these seats just don’t leave. The current three people in those positions have represented Vermont for a combined 93 years. Senator Patrick Leahy alone has held his seat for 47 years.
Leahy’s decision to retire after nearly half a century created the first change in the state’s Washington delegation since George W. Bush’s administration. On Tuesday, Representative Peter Welch won the Democratic primary for the Senate seat currently held by Leahy, a move that opens up Welch’s seat in Congress.
In 2018, Mississippi became the 49th state to send a woman to Congress, when Cindy Hyde-Smith was appointed to the Senate. She has since won reelection on her own. That left Vermont as the only state that had not sent a woman to Congress, something that was often discussed among the state’s political elite.
Nationwide, the first woman elected to Congress was Jeannette Rankin of Montana. She was elected in 1916 and then again in 1940. (Notably, the state’s voters have not sent a woman back to Washington since.)
Vermont’s neighbor, New Hampshire, became the 46th state to elect its first woman to Congress in 2006, when Democrat Carol Shea-Porter was elected. From there, things changed quickly in the Granite State. By 2013, women held both US Senate seats, both US House seats, the governor’s office, as well as the top leadership positions in the state house, state Senate, and even the state’s supreme court.
And while Massachusetts sent its first woman to Congress nearly a century ago, in 1925, the Commonwealth has still yet to elect a female governor, which may change in November. (Jane Swift served as acting Massachusetts governor from April 2001 to January 2003, but was never elected.)
All-women matchups in the general election are becoming more common. Already there are 35 such contests for the US House, Senate, and governor in general elections this fall, according to data compiled by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Back in Vermont, identity eventually became a side point in the contest between Balint and Gray, given that either one would make history. In fact, the race became something of a traditional Democratic primary contest with Balint as the progressive option, backed by Senator Bernie Sanders, and Gray with the endorsements of more of the establishment figures like former governor Howard Dean.