Eric Davis: Much depends on Leahy’s plans

With about three weeks remaining until Election Day, most nonpartisan analysts believe that Republican candidates are likely to gain the six or more seats they need to have a majority in the U.S. Senate. How would a Republican majority affect Sen. Patrick Leahy’s decision whether or not to run for an eighth term in 2016?
Should Leahy decide to run again, he will be a near lock for re-election. Should he decide to retire, a Democrat would be strongly favored to hold the seat. Depending on who decides to run for the Senate, Leahy’s retirement could start a shake-up in Vermont politics resulting in several open seats — for U.S. Senate, U.S. House and/or governor — and competitive Democratic primaries in 2016.
If the Democrats do manage to reverse the current projections and hold on to a narrow majority, I believe that Leahy is likely to run for re-election in 2016. He holds three important positions in the Senate — president pro tempore, chair of the Judiciary Committee and ranking member on the Appropriations Committee. As the most senior member of the Senate, he may retain these positions as long as the Democrats keep the majority. The map of Senate seats up for election in two years favors the Democrats, so if Democrats retain the majority this year, they are likely to expand it in 2016.
Leahy would be less likely to run for re-election if the Republicans win a majority in the Senate, especially if that majority were to be in the range of 53 seats or more. When projecting the probability of Democrats retaking the majority in 2016 after losing it this year, analysts will focus on what set of states Republican Senate candidates will win this year.
Almost all observers believe Republicans will gain three seats where Democrats decided not to seek re-election — in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia. Winning these states would give Republicans 48 seats, three short of a majority. To organize the Senate, Republicans would have to defeat some Democratic incumbents, or win additional open seats. This assumes Republicans hold on to all their own seats, a reasonable but not certain proposition at this time.
The possible Republican pickups fall into two groups. First, incumbent Democrats are seeking re-election in three states that have been consistently Republican in presidential and congressional elections — Alaska, Arkansas and Louisiana. Winning these three states, plus the three open seats, would give Republicans a 51-49 majority. However, that majority could be overturned in 2016. In these circumstances, Leahy might well decide to run for re-election.
The next group of competitive Senate seats are in states that have elected both Democrats and Republicans for president, U.S. House, U.S. Senate, and governor in recent election cycles — Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire and North Carolina. While Republicans are unlikely to win all five of these states, they could win two or three of them. That would put their Senate majority in the range of 53 or 54 seats, enough to possibly withstand some Democratic gains in 2016.
I believe the results in these five states will determine whether Leahy retires or seeks re-election in 2016. Whatever his decision, he is unlikely to reach it, or announce it, immediately after next month’s election. In the recent past, Vermont U.S. Senators, U.S. House members and governors who decided not to seek re-election have announced their plans roughly 14 to 18 months before Election Day. If Leahy were to retire, I believe he would follow a similar schedule and make an announcement sometime between May and November 2015.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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