Politics

Who will take Leahy’s place in the Senate and why does everyone think it’s Welch?

With Vermont’s senior U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., having announced on Monday his plans to retire at the end of his current term, the race begins to see who will fill the first open seat in Vermont’s congressional delegation since 2006.

No one has been explicit yet about their plans for the election in November 2022, save for those ruling out a run. (“No chance!” a spokesperson for Republican Gov. Phil Scott told a reporter on Monday.)

But in some ways, it feels like the die has already been cast. U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., will likely run for Senate, the conventional wisdom goes, and take Leahy’s place without facing a solid primary challenger. While he has yet to announce an official campaign, Welch said Tuesday he will announce any plans “in the coming days.”

The potential road map mirrors U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ own rise to the Senate from the House in 2007, when Sen. Jim Jeffords retired. Welch then won Sanders’ vacated seat.

Should Welch follow in those footsteps, the competitive primary in 2022 will be for Vermont’s lone congressional seat, which Welch now occupies.

And indeed, the three Democrats most expected to make viable bids for Congress — Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, D-Windham, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, and Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden — have all suggested they are eyeing the U.S. House seat.

Should one of them prevail, she would be the first woman elected to Vermont’s congressional delegation in state history. Each is also decades younger than Welch, 74, and Sanders, 80.

All three Democratic women have also indicated that they would not challenge Welch in a bid for the Senate.

“I personally don’t have a fire in my belly to run against Congressman Welch if he pursues the Senate seat,” Ram Hinsdale told VTDigger on Monday.

Liz Bankowski, who ran Madeleine Kunin’s historic 1984 campaign for governor, doesn’t fault the leading contenders for deferring to Welch. Doing so is just “pragmatic politics.”

“How do you run a serious campaign, raise the money you’ll need against a strong incumbent?” she said.

Welch would not technically be the incumbent in a Senate run, but as a member of the congressional delegation since 2007, he would have a leg up in name recognition, fundraising and establishment support.

Asked if she thought Welch should step aside, Bankowski said she thinks it’s time for a generational handoff. 

“Opening up space for other generations and for more diversity is in our long-term interests,” she said.

Former Vermont House Speaker Gaye Symington, a Democrat, said she “think(s) the world of Congressman Welch” — but questioned why he is already the presumed winner of a Senate primary.

“I think that especially younger Vermonters are hungry to hear voices that sound like them and to not feel as if these races are predetermined,” she said.

“It’s very discouraging. I’m old. I’m white. I have worked with all these people and know how incredibly well served we are,” she continued. “But for the people I know who are in their early 30s, it just feels like, really, this is our only option? We don’t even allow a full debate, a full consideration of a more diverse set of voices. And I think that’s a loss.”

State Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Essex, a first-term lawmaker, is an exception, having floated the idea of challenging Welch in a Senate primary to The Intercept. She told VTDigger this week that any open seat is just that — an open seat — and “we have better, stronger elections when there are a lot of voices.”

“I bring a different voice as someone who’s, you know, a young millennial who grew up in Vermont and who has struggled to afford to move back here after college and who has student loan debt,” she said. “I work as a social worker in our schools. I think I just bring a really different viewpoint and a really different set of life experiences.”

As of right now, no one has officially announced a run for any seat, House or Senate. Politicians and spokespeople have said for now, the focus is on Leahy and his retirement.

“In the coming days, I will make a decision about my future plans and share that decision with Vermonters,” Welch said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “Until then, I hope Vermonters will join me in celebrating the remarkable legacy of Patrick and (wife) Marcelle Leahy’s service to our state.”

In an interview Tuesday morning with radio station WDEV, Lt. Gov. Gray said she is going to take the Thanksgiving holiday at home to think before making any announcements.

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is a political reporter for VTDigger, covering Vermont state government, the congressional delegation and elections. She previously covered education for Digger, the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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