Kesha Ram Hinsdale exits Vermont’s US House race, endorses Becca Balint

Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, announces she is a candidate to be the Democratic nominee for Congress during a press conference in Winooski on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Updated at 4:37 p.m.

A leading candidate for Vermont’s open seat in the U.S. House has dropped out and endorsed a top opponent, shaking up the most closely watched race in a banner election year. 

State Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, will no longer run for Congress and will instead run for reelection to the Vermont Senate, she announced Friday. Ram Hinsdale simultaneously threw her support behind the candidacy of Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham. WCAX-TV broke the news early Friday.

Ram Hinsdale and Balint have been jockeying for the support of left-leaning voters in the Democratic primary. The departure of the former will likely help the latter compete against Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, who is seen as more of a centrist. 

“I had a few sleepless nights thinking about my path to victory, bringing down another woman in this race that I deeply respect and that has earned a broad coalition of support from Vermonters,” Ram Hinsdale told VTDigger, referring to Balint. “That is not the person I am or what Vermont needs.”

Ram Hinsdale said her decision was also driven by how competitive the primary contest had become.

“This was what many would call a jump-ball race, a toss-up,” she said. “Anyone could pull ahead. Anyone could outsmart or outmaneuver. And I couldn't live with uncertainty on Election Day about who would emerge victorious.”

The candidates have been seeking to succeed U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., in the House. Welch announced last November that he would run for a seat in the U.S. Senate that will be vacated this winter by retiring U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Vermont has never elected a woman to Congress, but the leading Democratic candidates in the race to replace Welch are all women.

Becca Balint at podium in front of statehouse
Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, discusses the 2021 legislative session during a press conference in Montpelier on June 2, 2021. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

“(It) feels really, really good to me that you can be super strong in your values and you can stand up for policy that you know is right for working families, and you can also do it in a way that brings people into coalition with you,” Balint told VTDigger of Ram Hinsdale’s decision Friday afternoon.

There is not a lot of daylight between Gray and Balint’s stated policy positions. But when asked by VTDigger Friday afternoon what sets her apart from Balint, Gray said she is “pragmatic in (her) approach.”

“We need more Vermont in Washington. We need our style of leadership — my style of leadership — that's really going to focus on delivering results and focus on the issues, not labels and sloganeering,” Gray said.

Balint, on the other hand, said that her own years in the Legislature provide Vermonters a voting and policy track record they can examine. “What's challenging is we don't know how Molly would vote,” Balint said. Gray has not served as a legislator and, as lieutenant governor, only votes to break ties in the Senate.

“People want someone who has been in elected office who understands what it is like to have to vote on really hard issues and to be able to communicate that to constituents — somebody who is truly tested,” Balint said. “You have to know how to stand in your values, even when people are calling you nasty names, even when people are grabbing you in the supermarket to say, ‘Why did you vote the way that you did?’”

Gray has voiced support for the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, but Ram Hinsdale told VTDigger that such policies “are not just progressive talking points.”

“They are beacons for a direction that our policy needs to move to recenter those who are most impacted in one of the most challenging times in history,” she said. Referring to Gray, she added, “It has become clear that there are a lot of interests in Washington trying to promote a candidate who is in some ways dismissing the power of ... bold progressive change.”

And between Gray and Balint, Ram Hinsdale said, Balint “is now the battle-tested one in the race,” given her years in the Legislature.

“Her leadership has been battle-tested, her integrity has been battle-tested and her policy positions have been battle-tested,” Ram Hinsdale said. “There is a track record there of doing what is difficult because it is right. And, essentially, there is a track record there.”

Gray contended that she, too, has legislative experience from her time as an intern in Leahy’s Senate office and as a staffer in Welch’s House office. And between her and Balint, Gray is the only one to have won a statewide race in Vermont as lieutenant governor.

“I'm also battle-tested. I've run and won in a four-way primary and in the general election,” Gray said Friday afternoon. “We have to ensure that we are sending a Democrat to Washington who's ready to deliver for our state the moment the door is open.”

Ram Hinsdale is opting to stay home in Vermont at a time during which Vermont state government is slated to see a historic level of turnover. Eleven of 30 state senators had been planning to retire or run for higher office, though Ram Hinsdale’s move reduces that number to 10. 

She’s also the only woman of color currently serving in the state Senate. As she and other members attempted to recruit diverse candidates for the Legislature, she said, it became clear that “this is a time when many people don't have the privilege to add public service to their plate.”

Word of Ram Hinsdale’s decision comes the morning after the deadline for Vermont candidates to file petitions with the Secretary of State’s Office to appear on the ballot. 

It leaves on the Democratic primary ballot Balint, Gray, former congressional staffer Sianay Chase Clifford and physician Louis Meyers. Republicans Ericka Redic, Anya Tynio and Liam Madden, and Progressive Barbara Nolfi have also filed to appear on the ballot, though the Secretary of State’s Office has not yet certified all of their petitions. 

There has been scant public polling conducted in the race, and a recent survey found it still closely matched between Balint, Gray and Ram Hinsdale — though Balint was slightly ahead. 

And while Ram Hinsdale technically brought in the largest fundraising haul last quarter, she also burned through that money at a very high rate, and had only roughly half as much cash-on-hand as Balint and Gray as of March 31.

Ram Hinsdale first entered politics at the age of 22, when she won a seat in the Vermont House and became the youngest serving state legislator at the time. She left the chamber in 2016 to run for lieutenant governor, but lost out to David Zuckerman in the Democratic primary. In 2020, she became the first woman of color ever elected to the state Senate.

Ram Hinsdale entered the congressional race in January and has been campaigning on a platform focused on climate change action, racial justice and labor rights. Her backers included 350.org founder Bill McKibben, the Vermont AFL-CIO and U.S. House Progressive Caucus chair U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.

Lt. Gov Molly Gray records a video during a reproductive rights rally in front of the Statehouse in Montpelier on Saturday, May 14, 2022. Photo by Natalie Williams/VTDigger

State Rep. Taylor Small, P/D-Winooski, a prominent Progressive lawmaker and a close friend of Ram Hinsdale, said that Balint’s and Hinsdale’s campaigns were concerned that the only path for either of them was to pull votes from one another — potentially handing the race to Gray. 

“I think this gives a clear direction for voters,” she said.

Those anxieties were compounded, Small said, by worries about what might happen down the road when another U.S. Senate seat opens up. Vermont’s junior senator, independent Bernie Sanders, is 80 and up for re-election in 2024 — and many wonder whether he will retire then.

“There is this move that happens once you're elected to Congress — that when a Senate seat opens up, it's almost as though you have a paved road to walk very, very easily into that new seat,” Small said. (Welch is considered the overwhelming favorite to succeed Leahy, and Sanders himself jumped into his Senate seat from a perch in the U.S. House.)

Small said the decision was a difficult one for Ram Hinsdale — one that took “courage and vulnerability that we don't often see” in politics, where people often get “caught up in (their) own egos.”

“If you're going to come into this realm, you have to have a healthy sense of, ‘I'm the best person for this job. I'm the best person and I know what I want to get done,’” Small said. “And there's also the reality of having … really amazing candidates for the congressional run that would end up splitting the votes because of their very near alignment on policy issues.” 

Natalie Silver, Balint’s campaign manager, told VTDigger Friday morning that their campaign “already felt very confident about our path to win,” citing its fundraising success and endorsement roster. But Silver called Ram Hinsdale’s move a game-changer.

“We felt that we were in a strong position, but as you know, math is math,” Silver said. “Having more candidates in the race is harder. And so having Kesha step away and then endorse our campaign is — I cannot overstate — an immensely important and valuable boost to our campaign.”

Friday’s development also enhances the competition between Balint and Gray, the latter of whom has drawn institutional support from D.C. insiders, including allies of Leahy.

“Speaking for us, Becca has been running on the message that we can do politics a different way,” Silver said. “We can bring new voices to the table. We can elect people who are not political dynasties in this state. We can elect people who are public school teachers, who are people of color, who are not from wealth. And I think that this is certainly going to unite Democrats in this race.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the location of Gray's internship in Leahy's office.

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Sarah Mearhoff

About Sarah

Sarah Mearhoff is one of VTDigger's political reporters, covering the Vermont statehouse, executive branch and congressional delegation. Prior to joining Digger, she covered Minnesota and South Dakota state politics for Forum Communications' newspapers across the Upper Midwest for three years. She has also covered politics in Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, she is a proud alumna of the Pennsylvania State University where she studied journalism.

Email: [email protected]

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