This article was updated at 3:23 p.m.
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., threw the door wide open for the 2016 gubernatorial campaign Friday by announcing he will not be a candidate for the state’s chief executive office.
Welch had frozen the field of potential Democratic, and Republican, hopefuls after Gov. Peter Shumlin set off a landslide of political speculation earlier this month by announcing that he wouldn’t seek a fourth term.
Welch answered the question of whether he would seek the governorship Friday, deciding that he could best serve Vermont by continuing to work in Washington. He plans to seek a sixth term in Congress in 2016.
“The question for me was, where could I best advance what has been my lifelong commitment to building an economy for the middle class?” Welch said in an interview with reporters Friday.
Welch, 68, cited his record of statesmanship in Congress, noting that he has worked with politicians across the aisle on several initiatives. He said that, after nine years of work in Washington, he is well-positioned to serve Vermont’s interests there.
“To some extent, your ability to be effective is enhanced by the time you’ve put in … where it takes time to build those relationships,” Welch said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., issued a statement about Welch’s decision to seek to return to Washington.
“Peter has been an exceptional advocate for Vermont in the House and I look forward to continuing to work with him and Bernie,” Leahy said.
VTDigger is underwritten by:
Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College, said Welch is poised for an ascent within the Democratic Party on the national level.
“By staying in Congress, Peter Welch does become an increasingly influential person in the House Democratic leadership,” Davis said.
Welch does have a record of cooperation with the GOP in the House on certain issues, Davis said, citing dairy policy and NSA surveillance as issues on which Welch fostered bipartisan collaboration. Based on past elections, Davis doesn’t anticipate that Welch will face a tough race to keep his current office.
Welch’s announcement leaves an open field for Democratic candidates for the state’s top office.
House Speaker Shap Smith said Friday that he expects to make a decision “soon” on whether he will make a run for the Fifth Floor. Smith had previously said that he would not run a campaign against Welch.
Smith said that he is discussing the possibility of running for governor with his family, and has consulted with friends and other Vermonters. He said encouragement from supporters has been “heartening.”
The “clear issue for 2016” will revolve around the economy, Smith said. “How are we going to make sure that we have an economically vibrant state that also is one that retains Vermont’s essential qualities,” he said.
Former state Sen. Matt Dunne of Hartland is a longtime friend of Welch’s and had made it clear that he would not enter the race if Welch did.
“I’m very thankful that Peter is willing to continue to serve in Congress,” Dunne said Friday. “He is doing amazing work for the country.”
Dunne, who was one of five Democrats in the 2010 primary race for governor, said he, too, planned a long conversation with family and friends before deciding whether to run in 2016.
“I know what it means to run a statewide race,” Dunne said of the demands on family and work life. “But I have been having conversations with Vermonters about taking the state in a new direction.”
Dunne, who is director of community affairs for Google, said if he decides to run he would focus on economic development, citing his background in business and broadband development.
Dunne, 45, offered no specific timetable for his decision other than to say he would announce before the new year.
Former Secretary of the Agency of Human Services Doug Racine, who has sought the state’s top office before, said that he had encouraged Welch to seek the governorship. Now that Welch has declared his intentions to stay in Washington, Racine will continue to mull a run himself.
VTDigger is underwritten by:
“It’s not a decision to be made lightly, and it’s not a decision to hurry,” Racine said Friday.
Racine will talk it over with his family and friends before making a decision. He said that he is happy to be in the company of Smith and other potential candidates for 2016.
“I think it shows the health of the Democratic Party, quite frankly, that there are many of us who I believe are credible candidates to run,” Racine said.
Transportation Secretary Sue Minter lauded Welch’s record in Washington. She was considering making a bid for Vermont’s congressional seat should Welch have chosen to run for governor, she said. Now, she is looking at other statewide opportunities.
“I certainly have been thinking about my future,” Minter said.
Minter said that she has been weighing a run for governor or lieutenant governor, but for now she is “keeping all my options open,” she said.
On the Republican side, Phil Scott is a clear frontrunner, according to Davis. If Scott chooses to run, “It’s a pretty high probability that he will be the Republican nominee,” Davis said.
Scott his decision would be made independently of Welch’s. He said he counts the congressman as a personal friend.
“It’s difficult to compete against your friends, but at the same time he is of the utmost integrity,” Scott said.
Scott said he wants to make sure his family is “behind me 100 percent.” He is not sure when he will make a decision, he said Friday.
Scott Milne, the GOP gubernatorial candidate who nearly upset Shumlin in 2014, said that Welch’s decision will have no bearing on whether he enters the race next year.
Milne said that, based on his experience on the campaign trail the last time around, he expects that in the next election year Vermonters will rally around candidates who are not professional politicians.
“Many people are inspired by seeing that one person can make a difference by stepping out,” Milne said.
Milne has not decided if he will run, he said. He said he hopes that Welch and Leahy face competitive races in the next election cycle.
“I’m certainly counting on trying to make a difference for Vermont,” Milne said.
Meanwhile, Shumlin’s early announcement accelerated the speculation around other statewide offices as well, Davis said. Earlier this week Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan announced that he will run for Attorney General regardless of whether incumbent Bill Sorrell seeks re-election.
Depending on whether Scott opts to run for governor, there could be a scramble for the lieutenant governor’s office, Davis said.
Text of Welch’s statement
“Just over two weeks ago, Governor Shumlin announced that he would not run for reelection. At the time, I indicated that, while it was likely I would seek reelection to Congress, I would consult with my family and consider where I could best serve Vermonters.
“After careful consideration, I have decided to seek reelection to Congress.
“Since 2007, I have had the privilege of representing Vermonters in Congress while serving both in the majority and in the minority. There is no question that being in the majority is far superior. Yet, I have found that bringing Vermont’s values, our civility, and our practical way of doing business to this job every day yields results for Vermonters regardless of who controls Congress.
“When I served in the majority, I was part of a productive Congress that restored America’s economic footing following the Great Recession, reined in the excesses of Wall Street, passed the Affordable Care Act, and brought our troops home from Iraq.
“Serving in a Congress controlled by the Tea Party has been a challenge. Yet even in this difficult environment, while working closely with Vermonters, I am proud to have found ways to make progress, including securing funding to rebuild Vermont’s highways and bridges destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene, enacting energy efficiency legislation, protecting our dairy and vegetable farmers, increasing funding for pediatric cancer research at NIH, and preserving assistance for Vermont’s rural hospitals.
“But making progress for Vermonters, regardless of who controls Congress, cannot mask the reality that this important institution is broken. Too often, Congress has been on the sidelines while the many challenges facing our country continue to mount. The middle class is struggling to make ends meet, an affordable college education is increasingly out of reach, and America’s infrastructure is crumbling.
“Making Congress function for the American people is no easy challenge, but it’s a challenge I have embraced with optimism, enthusiasm, and determination since 2007. In order to succeed, legislators must find common ground and put practical progress over political posturing, just as Vermonters do.
“I deeply appreciate the outpouring of support I received from those who urged me to return home to run for governor as well as those who urged me to keep at it in Congress. While being governor would be a distinct honor, I believe I can best serve Vermonters by continuing the hard work of getting Congress back to work for Vermont and the nation.
“And with the consent of Vermonters who have strongly supported my efforts to reach across the aisle in Washington, I look forward to continuing my work as Vermont’s representative in Congress.”
Missing out on the latest scoop? Sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on politics. And in case you can't get enough of the Statehouse, sign up for Final Reading for a rundown on the day's news in the Legislature.