Sen. Patrick Leahy’s decision to not seek reelection sparks ‘seismic shift’ in Vermont’s political scene

Sen. Patrick Leahy announced Monday he would not seek a ninth term, which could have ripple effects up and down the ballot for the 2022 midterm election. (Peter Hirschfeld/VPR)

The political scene in Vermont got a whole lot livelier on Monday after Sen. Patrick Leahy announced he won’t seek a ninth term in the U.S. Senate.

Leahy’s decision could have ripple effects up and down the ballot next year, and his retirement represents the beginning of a generational transition in Vermont politics.

Conor Casey, former executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party, said there’s some sadness that Sen. Patrick Leahy is passing the torch.

But he said it’s hard not to get excited about who’s going to reach out and grab it.

“For the political junkies in Vermont, this is a seismic shift in Vermont politics, which really for the last few years has been pretty stable,” Casey said.

He said a rare opening in the federal delegation will be too tantalizing for many politicians to resist.

“You have a lot of folks waiting in the wings,” Casey said. “And once you have one spot open up, which you do now, the dominoes start to fall.”

Vermonters now get to watch where, and how, those dominoes tumble.

Will Rep. Peter Welch run to replace Leahy? If so, will he face off against a well-known Democrat in the primary? Or will prospective candidates cede Senate ground to Welch, and battle it out for his seat in the House?

Caledonia County Sen. Joe Benning foresees a gripping political drama.

“The slugfest, if you will, that is going to open up as a result of his decision will probably be one of the most interesting things to watch in my political career,” Benning said.

Benning, a Republican, said he isn’t aware at this early stage of any GOP candidates who might make a bid for Leahy’s seat.

A spokesperson for Gov. Phil Scott said Monday there’s zero chance he’ll run for Congress next year.

Scott Milne, who challenged Leahy in 2016, didn’t immediately respond to a media inquiry Monday.

On the Democratic side, trial balloons are already floating.

Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, Chittenden County Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale and Lt. Gov. Molly Gray have all expressed interest in running for a spot in Vermont’s congressional delegation.

Balint declined to discuss her electoral plans with VPR on Monday.

Gray said it’s too early to discuss the next election.

Ram Hinsdale says her next move depends in part on what Welch, who declined to comment to VPR on Monday, decides to do.

“There are a lot of other variables, including the plans of our one and only and very accomplished Congressman,” Ram Hinsdale said.

Mia Schultz, president of the Rutland Area Branch of the NAACP, said she reads Leahy’s retirement as an acknowledgement that Vermont needs new kinds of leaders in Washington, D.C.

“And we’re ready, I think the world is ready, for different representation for the future,” Schultz said.

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