Eric Davis: 2014 Senate race bears watching
There will not be a U.S. Senate race in Vermont in 2014. However, the results of Senate campaigns in other states could significantly affect politics in Vermont.
Most nonpartisan political analysts believe Republicans will gain seats in the Senate in November. Of the 36 Senate seats up for election, 21 are now held by Democrats. Many of these seats are in southern and western states that have voted consistently Republican in recent presidential elections. If Republican candidates make a net gain of six or more seats, the GOP will form the Senate majority in January 2015. Currently, the Senate is too close to call, with neither party likely to have more than 52 seats after the election.
A Republican Senate would have serious consequences for both Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, but especially Leahy. In a Republican Senate, Leahy would no longer be president pro tem of the Senate, chair of the Judiciary Committee, and the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee.
Leahy would obviously prefer being in the majority to the minority. The question for Vermont’s political future is whether Leahy would find being in the minority so unappealing that he would decide to retire at the end of his current term in 2016, rather than seek re-election. In November 2016, Leahy would be 76 years old and would have served in the Senate for 42 years.
If Leahy were to retire in 2016, he would almost certainly be succeeded by another Democrat. But who would that Democrat be?
Both Jim Jeffords and Bernie Sanders moved from the House to open Senate seats, in 1988 and 2006, respectively. Would Rep. Peter Welch want to run for the Senate, if there were an open seat in 2016? Welch is popular, and could certainly be elected to the Senate, but I see two drawbacks to his making the move.
First, Welch would be 69 years old at the time of the 2016 election. As a small state, Vermont’s long-term interests might be better served by electing a younger person to the Senate, who could accumulate a lifetime’s worth of seniority, as has Leahy, and his predecessor, George Aiken. Second, Welch has been slowly moving up the ladder of the Democratic House leadership. Many very senior Democrats have decided to retire this year. Reps. Nancy Pelosi of California and Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the top two House Democrats, might not remain in Washington longer than one or two more terms. If Welch were to stay in the House, he could well be close to the top of the House Democratic party within just a few years.
If Welch were not to run, would Gov. Peter Shumlin seek to replace Leahy in the Senate? Shumlin is certainly politically ambitious, and is interested in being a player on the national scene, as evidenced by his current role as chair of the Democratic Governors Association. However, 2016 would be a most inconvenient year for Shumlin to run for the Senate. The governor plans to launch his signature initiative, a single-payer health plan, on Jan. 1, 2017. For the administration in Montpelier to be changing at the same time as the health care system is changing might not be a transition that would bode well for the start of single-payer.
If Leahy were to retire in 2016 and neither Welch nor Shumlin were to run for the Senate, Leahy’s successor would likely come from a younger generation of Democrats, including but not limited to House Speaker Shap Smith, Chittenden State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan, and former gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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