early and often

The Heir to Bernie?

Photo: Hilary Swift/The New York Times/REDUX

Hanging over the American left has been the overriding question of what comes after Bernie Sanders. The 80-year-old Vermont senator is probably never running for president again and is, realistically, nearing retirement, no matter how vigorous he may seem. Obvious successors — someone who could mount a competitive national campaign while promoting democratic socialism or even unabashed progressivism — have not emerged yet. Most of the Squad members are too young or, in the case of Ilhan Omar, too polarizing: She barely survived a primary challenge last night.

But in Vermont, an heir apparent could be on the horizon, on a fast track to the Senate. Last night, Sanders scored a commanding victory when Becca Balint, the 54-year-old president of the state senate, easily defeated Vermont’s lieutenant governor, Molly Gray, in a Democratic primary for the state’s lone House seat. Both women were competing to fill the vacancy left by Peter Welch, the representative running to replace Patrick Leahy in the Senate, who is retiring at 82. Balint is expected to cruise to victory in November. A backer of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, she was Sanders’s candidate, while Leahy supported Gray.

Leahy and Sanders are Vermonters of the same generation, but they have long been at odds ideologically. Leahy is an institutionalist both in Washington, D.C., and in Vermont. Leahy has served in the Senate since the 1970s and didn’t support Sanders when he first ran for president in 2016. Sanders, a former mayor of Burlington and representative, has never belonged to the Democratic Party, spending long stretches of his career campaigning on leftist third-party lines. The two, while friendly, hail from very different political traditions.

And it was Sanders’s vision that won out decisively Tuesday. Balint, a middle-school teacher before entering politics, is openly gay and would be Vermont’s first female member of Congress. Her tenure in the House, assuming she wins in the fall, may not last very long: Sanders will have to decide in 2024 whether to run for reelection again or, like Leahy, end an illustrious career in Washington. Balint’s presence in the House may make that decision far easier. With another endorsement from Sanders, Balint’s ascension could be a formality.

Sanders campaigned aggressively for Balint in a way Leahy, who has been battling health issues, could not for Gray. Sanders held three rallies for Balint in the past month and helped to ensure national progressive organizations and LGBTQ+-advocacy groups supported her bid. Elizabeth Warren and Jamie Raskin supported Balint, too. The coalition of national and local progressives was able to overcome Gray’s statewide name recognition. What also helped was outside spending — more than $1.3 million, a bulk of it from the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a prominent PAC.

Balint’s victory was assured in part when another progressive, State Senator Kesha Ram, dropped out in May. It was a notable instance of progressive and leftist organizations coming together to decide that votes could not be split in such an important contest. Infighting could have easily doomed Balint against Gray, who enjoyed significant support from Democratic institutional forces in Vermont. One clear area of disagreement between the two Democrats was criminal-justice reform. Balint did not back defunding the police but, unlike Gray, wants to end qualified immunity for police officers. She also called for decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs and is an enthusiastic backer of safe-injection sites.

Can Balint be another Sanders? Undoubtedly, the Bernie phenomenon is difficult to repeat, and if Balint wants to build power in Congress and beyond, she will have to learn from where her mentor succeeded wildly and failed decisively. Sanders, as a democratic socialist, came closer to winning a Democratic primary for president than just about any other candidate of his ilk in modern times. He also did not win. Balint may not be thinking so far ahead — she needs to win in November, then seek a promotion in a few years — but progressives, at least, can invest hope in the Green Mountain State once more.

The Heir to Bernie?