With Patrick Leahy Retiring, Vermont Has Chance to Elect State's First Congresswoman

Since Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy announced Monday that he plans to retire after his current term, speculation has begun on who will replace him, and if that person could potentially make history for the state.

One of seven states with just three representatives in Congress, one House Rep. and two Senators, Vermont is the only state to never elect a woman for any of those three seats.

Vermont's last open seat came in 2006 when Bernie Sanders succeeded Jim Jeffords as a Senator and Peter Welch took the lone House seat.

Welch, 74, is expected by experts to be a favorite if he runs for the seat Leahy is vacating, according to The Associated Press.

Welch said Tuesday that he will announce his future plans "in the coming days," since there is about a year until the 2022 election where Leahy's seat will be filled.

Vermont State Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint and state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale and Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, all Democrats, have been mentioned by experts as potential candidates to fill Vermont's historic female void.

Ram Hinsdale said Tuesday that if Welch runs for the Senate seat, she is considering running as a candidate to fill Vermont's lone House seat.

For more reporting from The Associated Press, see below.

Patrick Leahy, Vermont, Senate, Democrat
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., takes photos before President Joe Biden signs the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill into law during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Monday. Leahy announced earlier in the day he will not seek reelection for his Senate seat. Susan Walsh/Associated Press

The opening provides an opportunity for Vermont to elect a woman, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics, on Tuesday.

"It would be a good thing for Vermont to have some diversity in its representation in Washington to represent some of the diversity in the state," she said. "The fact that Vermont has never had a woman's voice representing it in Washington, D.C., with that set of life experience, with that sort of understanding of another dimension to policy questions, it's a loss for the state of Vermont."

Gray is a retired University of Vermont political science professor and a congressional scholar. But Nelson noted that Gray, a former Burlington attorney who has served as lieutenant governor since January, doesn't have much political experience.

"It would be a shock to Vermonters if he decided not to run," she said of Welch.
If he does run for Leahy's Senate seat, Nelson noted that Welch is 74, not much younger than Sanders, now 80, and Leahy, 81.

Welch has developed a spot for himself in the House and is well-liked there, so "this is an intensely personal choice for someone like him," said Linda Fowler, professor emerita of government at Dartmouth College.

Republicans are likely to struggle fielding a competitive candidate in the liberal state, Nelson said, especially since GOP Gov. Phil Scott has said he's not interested in running.

The state Republican Party chair sent out a statement after Leahy's announcement saying they have "an incredible opportunity to recruit the kind of high caliber candidate to win this seat and make Vermont more competitive than ever before."

Republican Scott Milne, a travel industry executive who unsuccessfully challenged Leahy in 2016, would not say Tuesday whether he is considering running again.

He did say, however, that he was unsure whether Welch would be the right person to bring needed change in a "dysfunctional" Washington.

Fowler noted that it might take a while for prospective candidates to decide whether to mount a campaign, so any speculation right now is premature.

"In my experience with potential candidates, they have to look at their finances, where their kids are in school and what their spouse thinks," she said.

But Fowler noted that Leahy has given potential candidates ample time to figure out what they want to do, given that his announcement came a year before the 2022 election.

"It's just one more mark of the fact that he's a very classy guy," she said.

Bernie Sanders, Patrick Leahy, Senate, Elections
Sen. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Sen. Patrick Leahy, (D-VT), arrives to a press conference on Capitol Hill presenting the No War Against Iran Act on January 9, 2020 in Washington, DC. The No War Against Iran Act denies funding for unauthorized military force against Iran. Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images