A major tectonic shift in the Vermont political world seems to be underway. If you listen closely, you can hear the rumblings.
According to the very active political grapevine, Sen. Patrick Leahy will not seek re-election, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch will run for his Senate seat, and at least three prominent Democrats are rushing to fundraise and assemble a team to run for Welch’s seat.
I’ve also heard from one good source that Gov. Phil Scott won’t run for re-election either. I’m not sure if I believe that; there’s no way he’d lose in 2022 unless the pandemic goes hog-wild (which is at least a possibility after the last two days’ case counts). But then, Scott isn’t your typical politico and isn’t motivated by the usual political impulses. Could be he’s feeling the strain of managing the pandemic for the better part of two years.
We’ll leave that aside for the moment and go back to Leahy. I’d expected him to run for another term for several reasons: He’d set the all-time record for Senate seniority in his next term, he’s at the pinnacle of power, and as chair of Senate Appropriations he can ensure a steady supply of federal dollars to Vermont.
Also, cynically, an elderly Senator can be propped up by a reliable staff, which Leahy has. But I don’t know his personal situation; looming health issues for him or wife Marcelle could easily lead him to step aside. Or maybe he just wants to enjoy some retirement time. Or maybe he thinks the Republicans will take control of the Senate in 2022. That’d make another term a lot less appealing.
After the jump: Jockeying for position.
The three politicians said to be positioning themselves for a Congressional run are the three identified in a recent Seven Days article: Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, and Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale. Other candidates would likely join them, forming the most competitive Democratic primary since at least 2010, when five Dems entered the fray after Jim Douglas’ withdrawal.
Even if there were only three hopefuls, it’d still be one hell of a primary. Gray has had a very brief political career, but she’s consistently beaten the odds and defied expectations. She’s well-connected and would have the (tacit) backing of the Democratic establishment. Ram Hinsdale has been a forceful progressive voice in her first state Senate term. They’d effectively be acting out an alternate-Earth battle between Leahy and Bernie Sanders.
As for Balint, I wouldn’t underestimate her either, but she’d be hard pressed to compete in a red-hot primary. She will have a more-than-full-time job as Pro Tem until May or June. That wouldn’t leave much time for campaigning or fundraising. And leading the Senate isn’t conducive to establishing one’s own political profile. The job essentially involves building consensus on issues, not blazing new trails.
In fact, if she were asking me (and she is definitely doing no such thing), I’d tell her to think about running for lieutenant governor instead. If Gray runs for Congress, the LGO is open. It’s a much better launch pad than Senate leadership.
Of course, if she was all-in on a Congressional run, she could step down as Pro Tem. Which would touch off a succession battle in the Senate. And if she and Ram Hinsdale run for Congress, there are two potential openings in the Senate next year. (Paging Emilie Kornheiser…)
If Leahy does step aside, a hell of a lot of dominoes will start to fall. It’d sure make 2022 the hottest campaign season in a long time.
Back to the governor’s office. The only thing I’ve heard about Dem candidates for governor is that Attorney General TJ Donovan is pondering a run. He’s the most obvious choice, but he’d only run if Scott retires. I’d expect Donovan to win the Democratic primary. Although if Balint changed course and sought the governorship, she’d give him a real fight.
So let’s talk Republicans. I don’t see any capable of making a real race for Congress. It isn’t out of the question for Gov. Scott to run for Leahy’s seat although I doubt he’d want to run against Welch. I can’t imagine Scott running to be one of 435 U.S. Representatives. Would he really want to live in Washington as one of 435 members of Congress? Nah.
I can think of two potentially strong Republican candidates for governor: former Douglas chief of staff Neale Lunderville and Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts. Lunderville’s been out of politics for more than a decade, but he’s still young enough and politically connected enough. He’s got a strong bipartisan image, thanks to acting as fixer for Shumlin (Tropical Storm Irene) and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger (Burlington Electric Department). I have no idea if Tebbetts even wants to be governor, but he’s the only kind of Republican who can win statewide: plausibly moderate and likeable. Even better, he has huge name recognition from all his years on television. And although his agency hasn’t been a great partner on waterways cleanup, his own reputation hasn’t suffered a bit.
Well, I’ve emptied the bag. Stay tuned for more, and bear in mind that I have a decidedly mixed record as a political prophet. Grain of salt, people.