Politically Thinking: Leahy faces an important decision

On July 25, Vermont’s Patrick Leahy cast the 14,000th roll-call vote of his 38-year Senate career. Only six senators in the 224-year history of Congress have cast more votes than Leahy.
In the years since Leahy was elected in 1974, party control of the Senate has switched six times. Leahy has spent about 20 of his 38 years in Congress in the majority. Leahy clearly prefers to be in the majority party. Although very senior senators are influential whether their party is in the majority or not, majority status brings with it chairing committees and subcommittees and more control over proceedings on the Senate floor.
Leahy is chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and chair of the appropriations subcommittee on the State Department and international operations. As chair of the Judiciary Committee, Leahy shepherded President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan through the Senate. His appropriations subcommittee position makes him one of the senators with whom Obama and Secretary of State Clinton frequently consult on foreign policy matters.
Leahy’s term in the Senate runs through the 2016 election. Although he is not on the ballot this year, he will be watching Senate races in other states very closely. Whether the Democrats retain a majority in the Senate after the elections this November, and in 2014, may go a long way in determining whether Leahy will run for re-election to an eighth term in 2016, or retire when his current term ends.
The Senate now consists of 51 Democrats, two independents affiliated with the Democrats, and 47 Republicans. Of the 33 Senate seats up for election this year, 23 are held by Democrats or their affiliates (including Sen. Bernie Sanders), and only 10 are held by Republicans. The Republicans would need to make a net gain of three or four seats this November to take control of the Senate — three if Romney is elected president and his vice-president casts the tie-breaking vote to organize the Senate for the Republicans, four if Obama and Biden are re-elected.
The GOP is projected to make a net gain of one Senate seat in three states where seats are expected to switch parties this year. The Republicans are expected to lose a GOP-held open seat in Maine and to gain Democratic-held open seats in Nebraska and North Dakota. That leaves control of the Senate to be determined by competitive races in seven states, two of them now held by Republicans, five of them now held by Democrats.
Only two incumbent Republican senators are in competitive races — Scott Brown in Massachusetts and Dean Heller in Nevada. Three incumbent Democrats are facing difficult re-election races — Bill Nelson in Florida, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, and Jon Tester in Montana. Democrats are also in danger of losing open seats in Virginia and Wisconsin.
Even if the Democrats manage to hold on to a majority of the Senate this year, they will face another threat to their control in 2014, when nearly two-thirds of the seats up for election are currently held by Democrats.
Leahy will likely make a decision on his political future soon after the 2014 elections. If the Democrats still have a Senate majority at that time, he might very well run for an eighth term. But if the Republicans control the Senate in early 2015, Leahy is more likely to say that, after spending more than 40 years in Washington, he has decided that it is time for him to return to his farm in Middlesex, Vermont.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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