Seniority Keeps Seats Safe for Democrats in Vermont

Posted April 9, 2014 at 3:12pm

For such a small state, Vermont boasts influential representation on Capitol Hill, thanks mostly to its seniority in the Senate. And that probably won’t change anytime soon.

The Green Mountain State’s two senators — Democrat Patrick J. Leahy and Bernard Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats — have glided to re-election in recent cycles. Leahy, the Senate’s most senior member, was easily re-elected to a seventh term in 2010, and wields the gavel on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Leahy can seek re-election in 2016 and Sanders could do the same in 2018. But if history is any guide, the GOP’s chances of picking up these seats are slim. After all, Republicans have all but stopped contesting Vermont’s at-large House seat, currently held by Democratic Rep. Peter Welch, since his first election in 2006.

“It’s more difficult than electing a Republican governor because of intense partisanship in Washington and distaste for national Republicans among many Vermonters,” said former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican who held that office for eight years, until 2011.

Not surprisingly, Vermont Democrats concur with Douglas.

“I think the Republican Party is very weak in Vermont right now,” said former Vermont Gov. Madeleine M. Kunin, who noted any electable GOP candidate “would have to be a very moderate Republican.”

Kunin suggested such a GOP candidate would need to be in the mold of the late Sen. George Aiken, a moderate Republican who left the Senate in 1975, or Sen. Jim Jeffords, who left the Senate in 2007 but switched his party affiliation from Republican to independent in 2001.

So who could fit that bill? Brent Burns, political director for the Vermont Republican Party, mentioned several promising potential future candidates for Congress from his party: House Minority Leader Donald H. Turner, Senate Minority Leader Joseph C. Benning, and Lt. Governor Phil Scott.

“We’re building our bench,” Burns said. “We got a good list [of potential candidates] we are developing.”

Whoever wants to run for Senate or House soon in Vermont, he or she shouldn’t expect an open shot at a seat. Sources said they don’t think Leahy, 74, or Sanders, 72, will retire soon.

“Both senators may be veterans of the Senate but are fully engaged and committed to running for re-election,” said Ed Pagano, a former chief of staff to Leahy and, until recently, deputy assistant to the president for legislative affairs and Senate liaison.

Last year, Leahy indicated he would seek an eighth term but would make a final announcement in 2015, according to VT Digger.

“At the end of yesterday, I was thinking, I probably should, just to try to have some more grown-ups down there,” Leahy told the local publication in October. “If I had to make the decision today, of course I’d run again.”

A former mayor of Burlington, Sanders was first elected to the House in 1990 and came to the Senate in 2007.

In March, Sanders told The Nation that he’s prepared to run for president in 2016 as a progressive candidate, and Pagano thinks he probably will go for it. It’s a no-risk situation for Sanders, who will still be in the Senate through 2018 if he loses his national bid.

“He has to decide whether he wants to risk being called a spoiler,” added Kunin. “He doesn’t have to run in the Democratic primary.”

That means Vermont Democrats might have to be patient if they want to run for Congress.

In future and possibly far-off elections, Pagano suggested Gov. Peter Shumlin, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, and state House Speaker Shap Smith as viable candidates for seats in Congress someday.

Welch, 66, would be an obvious choice to run for Senate as well.

State Senate President Pro Tempore John F. Campbell and state Treasurer Beth Pearce could also make strong Democratic successors in Congress, according to another top state Democrat.

“We have some of the best Democrats in New England making decisions for Vermont at all levels of state government and the party,” said Julia Barnes, the executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party. “I could see the VDP getting wholeheartedly behind any of them should they choose to run for higher office.”

There’s one other kind of candidate Kunin hopes will run for Congress from her state.

“Vermont has never elected a woman to Congress,” said Kunin, who cited state Reps. Jill L. Krowinski and Kesha K. Ram as promising politicians in the party.

Farm Team is a weekly, state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress.