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Analysis

Vermont is the only state in the nation that has never sent a woman to Congress. Leahy’s retirement from the Senate is likely to change that

Senator Patrick Leahy.Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

In 2018, Mississippi elected Cindy Hyde-Smith, a Republican, in a special election for the US Senate, where she still serves today. Her election meant that Mississippi, one of the most conservative states in the country, had passed a milestone by electing their first woman in state history to serve in either the US House or Senate.

It also meant that there was a certain awkwardness in Vermont. While proclaiming to be the political polar opposite of Mississippi and with leading progressive representatives like Senator Bernie Sanders, the Green Mountain State was now the only state that had never sent a woman to Washington.

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With the announcement Monday morning that Senator Patrick Leahy, 81, would not seek reelection next year, there is already significant discussion locally about electing a woman to Congress. Here is where we stand mere hours after the announcement: it is much more likely than not a woman will be elected and end Vermont’s unique male-only representation to Washington.

While women have long faced logistical and, frankly, sexist perception hurdles to running for political office, there is a practical reason why women haven’t been elected to Congress lately in Vermont: no one new has been elected to Congress from the state in 16 years.

Indeed, Vermont has only three members of Congress and they seemingly never leave. The last time there was a scramble was in 2006, when Bernie Sanders went from the US House to run for the US Senate seat held by a retiring Republican turned independent Jim Jeffords. It was the same year that Peter Welch, a Democrat, won the House seat that Sanders held. The delegation has been the same ever since, with the pair serving alongside Leahy, who was first elected in 1974 and is in his eighth term.

Much like what happened in 2006, most political watchers in Vermont believe that Welch is poised to ascend from the House to the US Senate without much competition. This, of course, is assuming that popular Republican Governor Phil Scott maintains his position that he is not interested in running for the job.

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Either way, Welch’s seat is very likely to be an open seat next year, and it is very likely that a woman will win it.

In fact, at the moment three of the most talked-about potential Democratic candidates for the role are all women, including Vermont Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, Democratic Lt. Governor Molly Gray; and Vermont Senator Kesha Ram Hinsdale. We are actually at the point where, as was noted at a VTDigger event last month, the debate is whether a man will even bother filing to run for the seat.

To be sure, it is still very early in the 2022 election season. A male candidate could run and get momentum for any number of reasons. And the Republican Welch beat in 2006 for the House seat was a woman with an impressive gender barrier-breaking military background.

While looking back on all the lists that Leahy has made during his time in office, including being the fourth longest-serving US Senator ever, Vermont residents may be looking to end its distinction as the only state on a list that has never elected a woman to Washington.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.