Updated Wednesday, Aug. 10, at 2:25 a.m.
U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., cruised to Vermont’s Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate on Tuesday, while Republican newcomer Gerald Malloy defeated former U.S. Attorney Christina Nolan for the GOP nomination.
Welch and Malloy are now set to face off in the November general election to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
By early Wednesday morning, with all but one precinct reporting, Welch was leading the Democratic field with nearly 85% of the vote, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. Malloy was ahead of Nolan by a margin of 40% to 35.5%.
“It’s safe to say all our hard work is starting to pay off, but the fight to bring about change only continues from here,” Malloy said in a written statement Tuesday night.
His win represented a stunning upset over Nolan, who had picked up support from the Republican establishment in Montpelier and Washington, D.C. A U.S. Army veteran, Malloy was virtually unknown in Vermont politics prior to entering the race.
Welch, on the other hand, has been running for office in the state for more than four decades and previously led the state Senate. He was first elected to the U.S. House in 2006.
In his victory speech Tuesday night at Nectar’s in Burlington, Welch said that the results of November’s Senate election would determine the fate of climate change legislation, nationwide abortion protections and even the future of democracy.
Politically, the current Senate is divided 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats — a “knife’s edge Senate,” as Welch put it — and a Republican win in Vermont’s Senate race could mean a GOP majority come January, he said.
“We have an obligation to the legacy of Patrick Leahy and to the future of Vermonters to make certain that we do not turn the gavel over to Mitch McConnell,” Welch told supporters, referring to the Republican Senate minority leader from Kentucky.
During his celebration at the Burlington bar, royal blue Welch campaign signs were taped up on the brick walls as his supporters congregated in front of a large projector showing early poll results. Attendees joked that Welch would clinch a victory within moments of the polls’ 7 p.m. close. Welch sipped a Fiddlehead IPA.
After the race was called for Welch, the Nectar’s crowd erupted in applause.
The secretary of state’s partial results showed Welch’s Democratic opponents trailing far behind. Isaac Evans-Frantz of Brattleboro had 7% of the vote and Niki Thran of Warren close to 5%.
Malloy’s edge over Nolan was unsuspected until a July poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire showed him with a single-digit lead over the establishment favorite.
Nolan had seen support from prominent national Republicans, including McConnell and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, as well as Vermont’s Republican Gov. Phil Scott.
Malloy is a graduate of West Point and a 22-year Army veteran who served in the Middle East during Desert Storm and Desert Shield before leaving active duty in 2006. He was born in Boston and has lived in Vermont for two years. Malloy identifies himself as a “conservative Republican” and positioned himself to the right of Nolan throughout his primary campaign.
At a recent economic forum sponsored by the Vermont Republican Party, Malloy took an early shot at Welch: Pointing out that the national debt has more than tripled since Welch took his seat in the U.S. House in 2007, Malloy said, “That gets you fired.”
Malloy declined an interview with VTDigger for a recent profile on his candidacy. In his written statement Tuesday, Malloy said that “America needs real fixing.”
“We the people are one step closer to having a real influence on everyday politics and policies that have been enacted by out-of-touch, federal elites,” he said. “As Vermont’s primary candidate, I will continue to advocate for policies that revitalize our nation and assure the prioritization, support, and a better future of and for the American people.”
Nolan, her family and her campaign team gathered Tuesday night in the back room of Halvorson’s, the restaurant on Church Street in Burlington. At first, the mood was upbeat as early results appeared favorable to Nolan. But as Malloy took the lead in the 8 p.m. hour, the gathering took on a more somber tone.
Around 10 p.m., Nolan and her guests began packing up to go home without a formal declaration.
“I’m not sad because this is how these things get decided. And would I rather see myself ahead? Of course, but it's up to the voters and we worked really hard,” Nolan said as she saw guests out the door. “It’s going to be how it’s meant to be.”
Nolan was joined by her partner, Jill Barcia, and her mother, Stephanie, who had traveled from Nashville to be with her daughter.
“It means everything that people who love me always wanted me to run and that is the biggest vote of confidence I could hope for,” Nolan said.
Leahy is the longest serving member of the U.S. Senate, and his announcement last November that he would not seek a ninth term led to a historic level of turnover in Vermont’s elected offices.
On Tuesday night, Welch was quick to mention the longtime senator he is hoping to replace.
“What we have done is taken the first step … on the journey to honor the legacy of Patrick Leahy and preserve those Vermont values that he represented for us so well for all these decades,” Welch told his supporters at Nectar’s. “Patrick Leahy, thank you for all you've done for Vermont. Thank you for all you have done for America.”
Since launching his campaign days after Leahy’s announcement, Welch has benefited from years of incumbency in Congress, Democratic institutional support and millions already in his campaign bank account. Welch has made the case to voters that he has established D.C. connections from his time in office and would build on Leahy’s legacy in the Senate.
Evans-Frantz said in June that he knew he was taking on a political giant when he declared his own candidacy in the Democratic primary but that he resented the idea that Welch’s win would be a foregone conclusion, or “coronation.”
On Tuesday night, Evans-Frantz recorded a live video on Instagram in which he congratulated Welch for his victory, saying he is “so glad that we live in a state where” Welch is running for the U.S. Senate. He told VTDigger in June that he “make(s) no secret of the fact that I like Congressman Welch.”
“I know this campaign ends tonight, but our work does not stop,” he said. “Every single person in this state matters, and that's what this campaign is about. This campaign has been about people power, about standing up to the influence of corporations, the undue influence on our democracy, because our democracy is not for sale. Our country is not for sale.”
Mary-Ellen Giroux, a 67-year-old psychologist, told VTDigger outside her polling location at the Williston National Guard Armory on Tuesday that she was “pretty excited about Peter Welch moving up.”
“I’ve always admired him. He’s worked so hard,” she said. “I love how he never gives up. He just kept going, when a lot of people would’ve said, ‘I’m done.’”
Paul Heintz contributed to this report.
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