With a rare opening this fall in its congressional delegation, Vermont appears poised to lose its distinction as the only state that has never been represented by a woman in Washington.
Three women, including Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, are among the Democrats competing in the Aug. 9 primary for the seat being vacated by the state's lone U.S. House member, Democrat Peter Welch, who is trying to move to the Senate. The two Republican candidates registered to run in the midterm elections are also women.
Given Vermont's liberal reputation, it might seem strange that it would be the last state to send a woman to Congress. But Vermont's tiny population makes it one of a handful of states with the smallest possible congressional delegation — two senators and one House member. And like many states, Vermont has traditionally reelected its incumbents, who have happened to be white men who have ended up serving for extraordinarily long stretches. That includes Democrat Patrick Leahy, who was first elected in 1974 and is the fourth-longest-serving senator in history.
"It's a bottleneck of leadership," said Elaine Haney, the executive director of Emerge Vermont, an organization that works to prepare women to run for elective office. "And so when someone holds on to all this for a very long time, it shuts off opportunity for everybody else."'
Last November, Leahy announced he would retire after eight terms in office. Within days, Welch said he would seek the Senate nomination, leaving the at-large House seat vacant for the first time since 2006, when Welch succeeded now-Sen. Bernie Sanders. Sanders has served in the congressional delegation since 1991.
Haney, whose organization helped train some of the women running for the House on how to campaign, noted that women bring a different experience to elected office than do men. That matters, she said, on issues such as abortion rights, a subject highlighted by a leaked draft opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court that would overturn the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.
"I believe strongly — and I think a lot of other people believe strongly — that if women, Democratic women, were actually at the table, these kinds of threatening situations would not be occurring, because women's lived experiences would be at the center of the discussion and of the policy," she said.
The Democratic candidates support abortion rights. A referendum on the ballot in Vermont in November would enshrine reproductive rights in the state constitution, the first such amendment in the country. The state also has a law protecting a woman's right to an abortion.
"We need leaders going to Washington who are unequivocal in making sure that Roe v. Wade is codified at the federal level, and I know that is a top priority for the (Democratic) women in this race," Gray said.
Welch has also been a fervent supporter of abortion rights and has called on Congress to codify the right to an abortion. He believes electing a woman as his successor will encourage more young people to run for office.
"This is an all-hands-on-deck moment and I couldn't be more excited for our state that these women have stepped up to meet the challenge," Welch said in a statement. "Each of the candidates is uniquely and incredibly talented and I know that they will use their experience to work hard for Vermonters in Congress should they be elected."
Vermont remains an outlier at a time when the number of women serving in Washington is growing. Montana in 1916 made Rep. Jeannette Rankin the first woman elected to Congress, four years before the 19th Amendment secured women's constitutional right to vote.
Since then, nearly 400 women have served as U.S. representatives, delegates, resident commissioners or senators,
In 2018, Vermont became the last state without female representation in Congress when Mississippi Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith was appointed to the Senate.
The women seeking the Democratic nomination in the Vermont House race have not focused their campaigns on the possibility that one of them will be the first woman from the state elected to Congress. They are instead promising to seek solutions to build the workforce, ease the state's affordable housing problem and combat the climate crisis, among other priorities central to the party.
"They're just not that far apart on a lot of these issues, and I think the election is going to turn on other things, such as questions of temperament and experience and, frankly, name recognition," said Matthew Dickinson, a political science professor at Middlebury College.
Gray, the lieutenant governor, was elected in 2020 in her first bid for political office. She is a lawyer and a former assistant state attorney general.
Balint has served in the state Senate for eight years, including six years in leadership positions, with the last two as president pro tempore. She was previously a middle school teacher.
A third Democratic candidate, Sianay Chase Clifford, is a social worker from Essex who previously worked in Washington for Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Democrat-Massachusetts.
The candidates could also make history in other ways. If elected, Balint would be the first openly gay person to represent Vermont in Congress, while Chase Clifford would be the first person of color to represent the state in Washington.
The GOP candidates registered to run for the House seat are accountant Ericka Redic, who lost a state Senate race in 2020, and Anya Tynio, who ran for the U.S. House in 2018 and lost.
Redic says she will focus on fighting inflation, illegal immigration, drug misuse and government overreach, particularly as it concerns vaccine mandates. Tynio said on her website that she is a supporter of the Second Amendment, a proponent of strong border security and supportive of implementing legislation that would reduce inflation, cut the national debt and balance the budget.
Two men, an independent from Brattleboro and a physician from South Burlington running as a Democrat, are also running for the House seat, but neither has reported raising any money.
While this fall's election will probably break Vermont's glass ceiling, it's likely the state will have other openings over the next few years.
Sanders, an independent, is 80 years old and facing reelection in 2024. Welch is 75.
Haney said she would love to see all of Vermont's top elected positions held by women.
"We have normalized male leadership throughout our history. And we are so used to seeing no one but men in charge, and we think, 'Oh, that's fine,'" she said. "There is nothing wrong with all women being in charge, and that's what I want to see."