Will Patrick Leahy run for a ninth Senate term in 2022?

  • Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., wrote the charter of Farm to School programs and spoke of their benefits during a visit to Sharon Elementary School in Sharon, Vt., Thursday, May 6, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • FILE — In this Nov. 19, 2019, file photo, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., ask questions during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Welch is seeking re-election in Vermont's Aug. 11, 2020, Democratic primary. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool, File)

Published: 5/30/2021 8:30:18 PM
Modified: 5/30/2021 8:30:13 PM

MONTPELIER — Sen. Patrick Leahy has a decision to make, and everyone’s waiting.

In the coming months, the 81-year-old Vermont Democrat is expected to disclose whether he will seek a ninth term in the U.S. Senate or step down. The retirement of the fifth longest-serving member in Senate history would open up at least one of the state’s three congressional seats for the first time in 16 years.

The prospect has prompted some of Vermont’s top politicians to prepare for a changing of the guards.

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who is widely seen as an heir apparent to Leahy, has beefed up his political operation and public appearance schedule in recent months. Vermont Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, told VtDigger she is “definitely considering” running for Congress in 2022 if there’s an opening, though she ruled out challenging Leahy or Welch.

Speculation about Leahy’s plans has increased dramatically in recent weeks.

On May 11, his Senate office disclosed that his wife, Marcelle, began treatment that day for chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a cancer affecting blood and bone marrow.

Though Marcelle Leahy, 79, said in a written statement that her prognosis was “extremely encouraging,” the news was widely perceived as a sign that her husband might retire, given how prominent a role she has played in his public life. (The senator himself was briefly hospitalized in January for what his office later attributed to muscle spasms.)

On May 21, a highly flattering article about Republican Gov. Phil Scott appeared in The Atlantic. The story floated him as a potentially strong candidate for the U.S. Senate, though Scott himself disclaimed any interest in the seat.

Twenty-four hours later, Politico published a story claiming that Leahy had signaled his intention to run for reelection. However, according to multiple current and former Leahy staffers, as well as Democratic Party officials, it’s not at all clear whether he will run again in 2022.

Leahy himself declined to be interviewed for this story. “Patrick and Marcelle Leahy have a long-held policy of making re-election decisions a year out from the election, and that hasn’t changed,” Leahy spokesman David Carle said in an email.

“He’s not saying anything different than he’s been saying all along,” Carle said. “He’ll be glad to speak with you all again about this later this year, closer to when he and Marcelle decide.”

Whatever Leahy decides will have a colossal impact on Vermont politics — and in Washington.

Leahy has served in the Senate since 1975 and is currently the chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations. As the longest-serving member of the majority party, Leahy also serves as Senate president pro tempore, a ceremonial role that puts him third in line for the presidency.

Leahy has been credited with sending billions of federal dollars to the state of Vermont during his tenure. Most recently, he has been lauded for his work to secure COVID-19 relief funds for the state — and for restoring congressional earmarks, which could bring hundreds of millions more to the state each year.

If he steps down, Vermont will likely lose some of its sway in Congress and its ability to procure federal funding.

But his retirement would pave the way for the first competitive congressional race in Vermont since 2006. Several candidates are waiting in the wings in the event Leahy opts to end his career.

A vacancy would almost certainly increase the pressure to send a woman to Congress. Vermont is the last state in the nation never to have done so.

Welch eyes the Senate

Welch, who has served in public office on and off for 40 years, appears to be preparing for a Senate run in the event that Leahy retires.

Welch, who lives in Norwich, also declined to be interviewed for this article, but in a statement about his plans for 2022, he did not rule out a bid for higher office. “My top priority is helping Vermonters recover from the COVID-19 health and economic crisis. It is a challenging time and there is an immense amount of work ahead, but I love my job,” Welch said. “It is a privilege to work on behalf of Vermonters in Washington and that is my focus right now.”

In recent months, Welch has ramped up his public appearance schedule throughout Vermont, joining selectboard and city council meetings from Rutland to Newport, hosting press conferences, and making stops at vaccination clinics.

Welch’s campaign coffers are already flush with $2.1 million, according to federal campaign finance data, and he’s using some of it to expand his political operation. In February, Welch hired communications specialist Natalie Silver as a campaign aide.

The move was unusual. In past election cycles, he has refrained from hiring political staffers until months before Election Day, relying instead on a bare-bones administrative staff to take care of campaign compliance work.

Silver has worked for the congressman in the past and held positions under Attorney General TJ Donovan, former Gov. Peter Shumlin and former Vermont House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero.

Notably, Silver co-authored a letter to the Vermont press corps in January calling out gender bias in the media — establishing herself as a spokesperson for gender equity in state politics.

If Welch were to run for the Senate, he would almost certainly face pushback from those unenthused about a 74-year-old white man taking the job.

Silver declined to comment.

Congressional contenders

If Welch, now in his eighth House term, decided to run for Senate in 2022, it’s not clear whether any prominent Democrats would challenge him in a primary. But his departure from the U.S. House would set up a potential skirmish over the state’s at-large seat.

Balint, who is in her first term as president pro tem of the state Senate, made clear her interest in running for Congress in 2022 if there was an open seat.

“I have absolutely no interest or intention in running against any of our sitting congressmen because they are serving us well,” Balint said.

Sen. Kesha Ram, D-Chittenden, who previously ran for lieutenant governor and has long eyed higher office, also said that if Leahy retired, she would consider a run for the House. “I’m keeping my ear to the ground, but really this session has been so busy I haven’t had any time to think formally about that or to put any infrastructure in place in that regard,” she said.

Ram said she would not challenge Welch if he were to run for Senate, saying she believes he has the “best chance of winning the seat.”

Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, a first-term Democrat, is also widely believed to be eying a seat in Congress. Gray declined to say whether she would consider a congressional campaign if Leahy retired in 2022. “If something comes up, you’ll be the first to know,” she told VtDigger.

“I think the most important thing for me is focusing day in and day out on the needs of Vermonters, and not focusing on the next election or a hypothetical about an open seat,” she said.

Can Scott go to Washington?

Scott, the third-term governor, has been adamant that he is not interested in running for Congress. However, if a seat opened up, he would be the best-positioned Republican in the state to do so in years.

Scott is extraordinarily popular among Democrats and Republicans alike, winning reelection in November with 67% of the vote.

A Vermont Public Radio/Vermont PBS poll released in September found that in a hypothetical U.S. Senate race, Scott topped Leahy 41% to 38%.

Another 15% were undecided, and 7% said they would support neither candidate.

In his interview with The Atlantic, Scott acknowledged that his party status would likely set him back in a Senate race. Vermont voters, he said, are “not going to send a Republican to Washington to tip power to the Republicans.” In response to a question during a Tuesday press conference, Scott said he hopes Leahy seeks reelection in 2022.

Scott declined an interview for this story.

“The Governor has no plans relating to a 2022 congressional seat so there’s not anything more to be said on this front,” Rebecca Kelley, a spokesperson for Scott, said in an email. “Put more directly, the Governor is 100% focused on doing his job as governor and is not considering running for a congressional seat.”

But in his interview with The Atlantic, Scott stopped short of ruling out a run for the Senate. “You never close the door on anything,” he said.

Thom Lauzon, a former Republican mayor of Barre who is close with Scott, said he’s never heard the governor express interest in running for Congress.

“Phil Scott is going to make much more of a difference as governor than he would as a junior senator from Vermont.”

“He’s got a lot of chips in his corner, and he earned every damn one of them,” Lauzon said. “And quite frankly, I’d rather see him spend that political capital on the state of Vermont and in keeping Vermont on a sustainable fiscal path.”

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