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Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont won’t seek reelection

Senator Patrick Leahy hugged his wife, Marcelle Pomerleau, at the conclusion of a news conference at the Vermont State House in Montpelier on Monday to announce he will not seek reelection.Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and the chamber’s most senior member, said Monday he will not seek reelection in 2022, opening a scramble to fill his seat in a narrowly divided Congress where the party is fighting to retain control after next year’s midterm elections.

Speaking at the State House in Montpelier, where he first launched his Senate career nearly half a century ago, Leahy, 81, said he was proud to be his state’s longest-serving senator and had worked to bring Vermont’s voice and values to the nation and the world. But he and his wife, Marcelle, had concluded it was time “to put down the gavel,” he said.


“It is time to pass the torch to the next Vermonter who will carry on this work for our great state,” he told reporters. “It’s time to come home.”

Leahy is the fourth-longest-serving senator in history and, as the most senior member of the majority, serves as the chamber’s president pro tempore, placing him third in the line of succession for the presidency behind Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The Senate is split 50-50, and Leahy’s decision to retire gives the Democrats an open seat to defend next November. Republicans are defending five open seats, which are seen as easier to flip than defeating an incumbent.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said he was confident Democrats would retain the Vermont seat “with Patrick’s help.” He described Leahy as a “guardian of Vermont” and other rural states in the Senate, “with an “unmatched fidelity to the Constitution and rule of law” — and someone with whom he always disagreed with on who had the best maple syrup: New York or Vermont.

The Senate vacancy could be attractive to the state’s governor, Phil Scott, a moderate Republican. Last spring, Scott told The Atlantic, “I don’t have any interest in running for the Senate,” saying he didn’t think Vermont voters would send a Republican to Washington to tip the chamber’s balance. But he added, “You never close the door on anything.”


A spokesman on Monday attempted to dissuade speculation over Scott’s plans. “He has been clear that he is not running for the US Senate next year, and that has not changed,” Scott’s press secretary Jason Maulucci told the Globe.

Vermont’s lone House member, Democrat Peter Welch, 74, is also a leading contender, which would open his seat next year. He praised Leahy in a statement Monday but did not tip his hand about running for the seat.

Vermont’s progressive leanings mean Democrats would have a strong shot at holding both of those seats next year, should Welch run to replace Leahy. The Senate seat remains rated safely Democratic, according to Kyle Kondik, managing editor for Sabato’s Crystal Ball at The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. But that rating would have to be revisited should Scott decide to run, Kondik said.

For now, Leahy’s retirement has set up dominoes waiting to fall, starting with Welch’s decision, said Matthew Dickinson, a political science professor at Middlebury College in Vermont. Dickinson doubted anyone — Democrat or Republican — could defeat Welch, whom “all tea leaves indicate” is preparing to run.

“He has been making a lot of appearances across the state, he has raised a healthy amount of money, so, if he does decide to run, he is well-positioned to do so,” Dickinson said.


Welch’s decision could determine whether or how a younger, more diverse generation of candidates jumps into the fray. Despite Vermont’s recent progressive history, it is the only state that has never sent a woman to Congress. An open seat in the Senate and the House also presents an opportunity for at least three female Democratic politicians in Vermont: Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray, state Senate president pro tempore Becca Balint, and state Senator Kesha Ram Hinsdale. (Hinsdale and Balint have publicly said in the past they would not run against Welch.)

An open seat “is just what new candidates, new folks on the scene need,” as challenging incumbents can prove all too difficult, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Congress and Vermont have changed dramatically since Leahy won his first Senate race in 1974, becoming at 34 years old the youngest person ever elected to the job from Vermont.

Over his eight terms, Leahy saw Washington has become more partisan. His state swung from a Republican stronghold to one of the most Democratic in the country, home to progressive firebrand Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

“He served in the Senate when it was an institution in which members worked together against partisan lines,” Dickinson said. But Democrats have increasingly shifted away from prioritizing bipartisanship after Republican Senate leaders consistently stonewalled former president Barack Obama. The deadly Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection accelerated that shift.


In his final term this year, Leahy presided over the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump.

Leahy is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the most senior member of the Senate Judiciary and Senate Agriculture committees. He has a track record of working to preserve Vermont’s forests, has fought to outlaw land mines, and has advocated for human rights and against the rollback of civil liberties. Leahy also is the last of the “Watergate Babies,” elected in the immediate aftermath of the resignation of former president Richard Nixon, and pushed to implement reforms and weaken the power of committee chairmanships.

On Monday, Leahy touted his efforts to establish programs to increase student lunches with food from local farms, protect forests and farmland in Vermont and across the nation, and clean up Lake Champlain, which divides northern Vermont from upstate New York. He also cited his work pushing for the protection of the individual right to privacy and updating the Violence Against Women Act, with added protections for Native Americans and LGBTQ members.

Leahy told reporters he had wanted to return to Vermont to give his retirement announcement. He grew up across the street from the State House where he stood, he said, and rode his tricycle through the halls — breaking who knows how many laws, he joked.

He recalled arriving in Congress amid a constitutional crisis after the Watergate scandal and seemingly endless war with Vietnam. Within months, Leahy voted five times against reauthorizing the Vietnam war as a junior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, though many in Vermont supported the conflict.


“My hope was that Vermonters would respect my judgment and my conscience, even if they disagreed with my vote for the war,” he said Monday. Hard work and good judgment, Leahy added, were values that he later came to learn were what Vermonters expected.