When U.S. Rep. Peter Welch and state Sen. Becca Balint took the stage at the Vermont Democratic Party’s election night party, they each had ample reason to celebrate.
Both Democrats won their first elections for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House, respectively, by commanding margins. And the nationwide red wave predicted by political pundits did not materialize, bucking historic trends. Although some races throughout the country remain too close to call, paths to Democratic majorities in the House and Senate still remain. Even if Republicans prevail, their majority will be thin.
Still, in their victory speeches Tuesday night and in subsequent interviews with VTDigger, both Welch and Balint couched their excitement with deep concern over some Republicans’ continued denial of election results, their “cultish” following and, more broadly, the future of American democracy.
“The threat to democracy is real,” Welch told VTDigger in an interview Wednesday afternoon. “I mean, we had 300 candidates-plus running on ‘stop the steal’ (platforms) across the country, and that was for high offices. That’s never before happened.”
Like many Democratic candidates throughout the country, Welch on the campaign trail continually harkened back to the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and cited former Republican President Donald Trump and his allies as an existential threat to democracy. In his own race, the differences between Welch and his Trump-endorsed Republican competitor Gerald Malloy were stark.
On Tuesday night, he reminded the crowd once again of Trump supporters’ attempt to interrupt the peaceful transition of power to Democratic President Joe Biden.
“I was there when the Capitol was attacked and the shot was fired and the doors were broken down and everyone was dismayed,” Welch said Tuesday night. “This election, unlike any other elections, has democracy right front and center on the ballot.”
Asked how he was feeling about the election results Wednesday afternoon, Welch said he had been “fearful of the red wave.” But he was heartened by Democrats’ ability to hold the line.
“What that says to me is that voters really are concerned about the loss of reproductive freedom. They are really concerned about an overreach by the Supreme Court. They really are concerned about the erosion of democratic norms,” Welch said. “That is something that was very clearly stated with the election results in Vermont, but also is reflected in some of those races that were expected to go to ‘stop the steal’ candidates, and they lost.”
Still, he told VTDigger that beyond Trump, larger-than-life, conservative Republican candidates have seized upon the party. He pointed to Georgia’s Republican U.S. Senate nominee Herschel Walker, whose race against incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock has not yet been called.
“The national Republican Party is in a battle between a cultish devotion to Donald Trump, as opposed to what had been traditional Republican principles,” Welch said. “You then get to meet members of the Senate who reflect that.”
At Tuesday night’s election party in Burlington, Balint beamed and was met with raucous applause when she was introduced for the first time as Vermont’s congresswoman-elect — a historic first in the state, which has never sent a woman to Washington. But after her speech, she retreated to her campaign’s war room and sat on the couch. Her tone was quiet and grim as she told two reporters, “I’m a little worried about what things are going to look like in the morning.”
The real “darkness” for Balint, she said, “is not so much the people within my own community who are Trumpists or election deniers.”
“It’s the enablers at the top, the enablers in Congress who know better, who know the truth,” Balint said. “That is textbook authoritarianism. That’s how it starts. I don’t think you can see what is happening in this country right now and not be truly frightened.”
Less than 12 hours later, after more election results from across the country rolled in and it became clear the red wave never came, she told VTDigger she was feeling more optimistic. Her Wednesday morning takeaway was that “the nation is really exhausted from the politics of fear mongering.”
“I think it just didn’t have the same resonance for voters as it’s had in the past because they don’t want to live like this,” she said. “It seemed like there were all of these pieces that would add up to many Republican wins, you know? People talked constantly the last few weeks about inflation and about crime and about these cultural hot-button issues. But I think when you came right down to it, you had a lot of people who believe this kind of hatred and vitriol, it’s not sustainable.”
Balint said she was “delighted” by the number of Trump-backed Republicans who lost their races Tuesday. As the former president poises himself to declare a third White House bid, Balint said it appears his grip on the GOP may be loosening.
“Yes, Republicans are going to pick up some seats, but a lot of the candidates that Trump backed did not win last night, did not prevail, and I think that matters,” she said. “I’m hoping that these midterm results show us that maybe we’re starting to see the fever break a little bit. I hope so.”
Still, both Balint and Welch acknowledged that Trump’s “America first” rhetoric would not disappear overnight, and in Washington, they will be working beside colleagues who occupy the GOP’s far-right flanks.
Asked how she will navigate those waters, Balint said on Wednesday, “Honestly … that is a big question.”
“I’m not sure how. I would be lying if I said that I was sure on how to navigate this moment,” Balint said. “What I do know is that I am committed to not adding vitriol, not adding to the demonization.”
In addition to Welch and Balint’s existential concerns, the question of partisan power on Capitol Hill will have tangible impacts on their places in Congress — and, in tandem, what they can deliver for Vermont. Not only could Democrats’ priority legislation evaporate if they lose the majority, but as potential members of the minority party, the Vermont delegation could miss out on key committee assignments and overall legislative sway.
That includes Vermont’s soon-to-be senior U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who currently helms the Senate’s influential budget committee.
Read the story on VTDigger here: As they celebrate their blowout victories, Welch and Balint remain grimly concerned over the future of American democracy.