Leahy retirement shakes up Vermont politics

Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (D-Vt.) announcement Monday that he’d decided to retire caused a chain reaction in Vermont’s political sphere, setting the stage for a number of closely watched primaries.

Rep. Peter Welch is largely seen as the heir apparent to replace Leahy, with the retiring senator referring to his fellow Vermont Democrat as “the remarkable Congressman Peter Welch.”

Welch and Leahy were both present at the bipartisan infrastructure bill signing at the White House on Monday. When asked about a potential run to replace Leahy, Welch said “today is Patrick’s day.” 

If Welch runs for Senate it would likely spark a competitive and crowded Democratic primary contest for his at-large House seat. Vermont Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, state Sen. Kesha Ram-Hinsdale and Lt. Gov. Molly Gray are among the names that have been floated for the seat. 

“I think all of the action here is going to be replacing Welch,” said Matthew Dickinson, a political science professor at Middlebury College in Vermont. 

“Because this is a blue state, whoever wins the nomination is going to have a leg up in the general election, almost certainly,” he said. “If [Welch] runs, I don’t believe any credible Democrat will challenge him in the primary.” 

The urgency to elect a woman in a state that has yet to send one to Capitol Hill is growing.

“The pressure is definitely high,” said Elaine Haney, the executive director of Emerge Vermont, a group devoted to electing Democratic women to public office. “We’ve had a lot of commentary in the public media about it’s time for a woman to step up.” 

All three women have also been floated as potential candidates for Leahy’s seat, but most insiders say they are more likely to launch House bids. 

“It’s no doubt that the state is sending a woman to Congress in 2022,” said Julia Barnes, the former executive director of Vermont’s Democratic Party. “It’s just a question of whether we send someone with the skills and values to represent Vermont and navigate the potentially tense environment for Dems after the midterms.” 

Then there is the question of whether Vermont’s Republican Gov. Phil Scott will launch a Senate bid — a question his office sought to put to rest on Monday. 

“No chance!” a Scott spokesperson told VTDigger. “Governor Scott has been clear that he is not running for the U.S. Senate or House next year. That has not changed.”

That’s likely to disappoint many Republicans in the blue state, where Scott is seen as one of the best possible GOP contenders for national office, particularly with the retirement of Leahy, who has served eight terms and holds the second-highest ranking position in the chamber.

National Republicans are working to find a strong path to taking back the majority in the upper chamber next year. GOP chances of taking back the Senate were dampened last week when neighboring New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) announced he would not run for the Senate and would instead seek reelection. 

“When you think of Republican candidates with statewide reputation [in Vermont], it’s a very thin bench,” Dickinson said. “If [Scott] decided to run, he would probably be the most credible opponent, but there’s no indication yet from Scott that he’s going to run.” 

Last year, a VPR-Vermont PBS 2020 poll showing Scott leading Leahy 41 percent to 38 percent in a hypothetical match-up raised eyebrows in the state, leading some to question whether Scott would launch a bid. Leahy responded to the poll in September of last year, questioning some of its past results and saying he did not care about it. 

Democrats are still widely viewed as having the advantage in the race, with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rating it as “solid Democratic.”  

Jim Barnett, a Republican strategist and former aide to former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas (R), noted that Republicans have a “Sununu problem” when it comes to recruiting a credible candidate for the seat. 

“The best candidate for the job doesn’t want it,” Barnett said. 

The Senate Leadership Fund, a GOP super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), released a statement shortly after Leahy’s retirement announcement Monday saying the political environment was in their favor. 

“Pat Leahy is smart enough to see the signs of building Republican momentum that threaten to sweep his party out of power,” said Steven Law, the group’s president. “As angry Americans continue to register their discontent with Democratic mismanagement of the country, there is little doubt this is a canary in the coal mine for Democrats’ fragile Senate majority.”

But Republicans in Vermont say they are facing serious headwinds. 

“Our problem in Vermont is we’ve got a very thin bench,” Barnett said. 

Tags Chris Sununu Mitch McConnell Patrick Leahy Peter Welch Vermont

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