Op/Ed

Eric Davis: Vermont is waiting for a woman in Congress

Voters in the state of New Mexico mailed in their ballots, or went to the polls, in a primary election held earlier this month. The winners of both the Democratic and Republican primaries in all three of New Mexico’s U.S. House districts were women. 
New Mexico will send an all-woman delegation of three members to the Congress that will convene in January. New Mexico also has a woman governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, whose term runs until the end of 2022.
The largest all-woman delegation in the history of Congress was from New Hampshire. Between 2012 and 2014, and again from 2016 to 2018, the Granite State was represented by two women in the Senate and two women in the House.
So far this year, 490 women have filed to run for seats in the House. That number could still increase, since the filing deadline in some states has not yet passed. There are currently 101 women House members, comprising more than 23 percent of the body. The House that convenes in January will likely be about 25 percent women, the largest percentage of women in the history of Congress.
Meanwhile, Vermont holds the dubious distinction of being the only state that has never elected a woman to serve in either the United States House or the United States Senate.
In much of the country, state legislatures are places from which U.S. House and U.S. Senate members are often recruited. In Vermont, women represent a large percentage of the members of the Legislature. In recent sessions, women have made up about 40 percent of those elected to Montpelier. This is one of the five highest percentages of women state legislators in the nation. Two western states — Colorado and Nevada — currently have legislatures where the female-male ratio is about equal.
Women have generally been well represented in Vermont’s legislative leadership positions. Two of the last three Speakers of the Vermont House have been women. In the current session, all four of the legislative money committee chairs are women. 
The exception is the position of Senate President Pro Tem, which has always been held by men. That could change next January, since the current Pro Tem, Tim Ashe, is running for lieutenant governor and will not return to the Senate in his current capacity.
Even though women are well represented in the Vermont Legislature, in both the membership and leadership ranks, there is definitely a “glass ceiling” that has prevented them from being elected to the U.S. House or U.S. Senate. 
In Vermont, what is blocking the advancement of women to Congress is the presence of three very senior members, two of whom — Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders — will have been in Washington 46 years and 30 years, respectively, next January. Rep. Peter Welch, the youngest member of the Vermont delegation at age 72, will have been in Washington for 14 years when the next Congress convenes.
All three members of the Vermont delegation are, in effect, “members for life.” They are re-elected by margins of two-to-one or better whenever their names appear on the ballot. The only way in which a woman will be elected to Congress from Vermont is for her to win an open seat election when one of the three current members decides to retire.
It is most unlikely that a Republican will be elected to Congress from Vermont in the foreseeable future. The GOP has become too conservative, too southern, and too Trumpist to win elections for federal offices in Vermont. 
Thus, the real elections for Leahy’s, Sanders’s and Welch’s successors will be the Democratic primaries to fill the seats they currently hold when those members retire. For a woman to win one of those primaries, she will have to finish first in a very large field of candidates wanting to contest a rare open-seat congressional election in Vermont.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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