Updated at 5:21 p.m.
The long-suspected rumors are true: Vermont’s U.S. Rep. Peter Welch is launching his campaign for the U.S. Senate.
The Democrat announced early Monday that after 14 years in the 435-member House of Representatives, he wants to jump to the more senior chamber, vying for the seat soon to be vacated by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat.
If he prevails, Welch, 74, would represent Vermont in the 100-member Senate alongside U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent.
In an interview with VTDigger Monday afternoon, Welch said he was surprised by Leahy’s decision to retire and had hoped the eight-term senator would seek another term. But when Leahy made his call — and in doing so revealed Vermont’s first open congressional seat in over a decade — Welch said he had his own decision to make.
From there, Welch said the question of whether to run “actually was pretty straightforward.” If Republicans successfully flip the Senate, he said, big-ticket Democratic policy priorities such as climate change mitigation, tax reform, voting rights legislation and abortion access are off the table.
“All of these things are very much in the balance as to whether or not we have a 50-50 Senate or maintain a progressive Democratic voice in the U.S. Senate for Vermont,” he said.
He said he believes democracy would face peril should Republicans take back the Senate, and said he is “absolutely” afraid of the potential ramifications. With Republican-dominated legislatures across the country passing state-level voting restrictions, Welch said, “we are on a knife’s edge” as a country.
“The other thing that was searing for me, and I think it was for the entire country, was what happened on Jan. 6,” Welch said. “I was in the Capitol and I was there when the mob was breaking the doors down. I was there when the shot was fired. And that was horrifying. But what was most sad for me, and worrisome for me, was when 147 of my colleagues later voted to disregard the will of the American people at who they had elected to be the president.”
Leahy announced last week that he will retire at the conclusion of his current term in 2023 after nearly 50 years of service, triggering the first open seat in Vermont’s three-member congressional delegation since 2007 — when Welch first assumed his current seat in the House.
Should he win the Senate seat, Welch would follow in the footsteps of Sanders, who also rose from the House to the Senate when former Sen. Jim Jeffords retired in 2007.
Already on Monday morning, Sanders put his political weight behind Welch, announcing his endorsement of Welch’s Senate run. Pointing to Welch’s 14 years in the House, Sanders said Welch “has the knowledge and experience to hit the ground running” in the Senate.
“Peter Welch understands that if we are going to combat the existential threat of climate change, establish universal health care, lower the cost of prescription drugs, create good paying jobs in Vermont and protect American democracy, now is the time to think big, not small,” Sanders said in a statement from his campaign.
Democrats currently hold a razor-thin 50-50 majority in the Senate. Welch stressed in his campaign launch that the result of Vermont’s Senate race “will determine control of the Senate and with it, what we can accomplish for Vermont families.”
“(E)verything — voting rights, Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, lowering prescription drug costs, reproductive justice, racial and economic justice, everything — gets filibustered and blocked by the Mitch McConnell Republicans in the Senate,” he said in his campaign ad. “They’re fighting for failure.”
There is even splintering from within the Senate’s Democratic caucus right now, with moderates such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona sparring with progressives such as Sanders to block social spending supported by other Democrats. Asked how he would navigate such division in and out of his own party, Welch said that “every single day, you’ve got to be interacting with your colleagues in good faith.”
“Yes, there's some folks down there that are determined to fight for failure. And you know, you're not going to get anywhere with them,” Welch said. “But that's my approach. It's what I did when I served in the Vermont Senate, and it's what I did as a member of Congress, and it's what I'm going to continue to do if I'm elected to the Senate.”
By launching his Senate campaign, Welch opens the door to the role he now holds: the state’s at-large representative in the U.S. House. No one has launched an official campaign, but Democratic rising stars have signaled interest, including Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, and Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden.
In a statement Monday morning, Ram Hinsdale said that, with Welch launching his campaign for the Senate, she “will be deeply exploring a run for Congress to give Vermonters a fighter in Washington.”
From across the aisle, Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who currently holds the title as America’s most popular governor, has said he has no desire to go to Washington.
Meanwhile, Balint, Gray and Ram Hinsdale have shown no appetite to challenge Welch in the Democratic primary for the Senate seat. Welch will have to withstand any challenges from within his party in a primary election before moving on to the general election in November 2022.
But the shuffling of Vermont’s political deck offers the state an opportunity to make history: Vermont has never sent a woman to Congress. Two open races in the state’s three-member congressional delegation could change that.
Open seats in Vermont’s congressional delegation also offer a chance for generational change. Leahy is currently 81 years old, Sanders 80 and Welch 74.
Asked by VTDigger what he makes of the notion that Vermont should elect a younger politician to Leahy’s seat, Welch said, “Every Vermonter, whether they're running for public office, or they're serving in the local selectboard, has to make a decision: How can I help? How can I help heal our country? How can I help save our democracy?
“Everybody's invited to that and everybody has to make their own individual decision, regardless of who they are, and where they are,” he continued. “I've made a decision that's based on my life circumstances. It's based on the fact that I've been a very effective member of Congress, and it's also based on the urgency of the moment. ... And that is, given my experience, given my success in getting in the hard fights and winning, that I believe I can best serve by being a candidate for U.S. Senate. And I respect the decision that every other Vermonter makes.”
2022 Election Briefs
- Update voter registration by Aug. 31 to guarantee mailed ballot, secretary of state says (August 25, 4:15 pm)
- Bernie Sanders endorses David Zuckerman’s bid for lieutenant governor (August 1, 6:14 pm)
- 2nd poll shows Becca Balint well ahead of Molly Gray (August 1, 5:15 pm)
Missing out on the latest scoop? Sign up for Final Reading for a rundown on the day's news in the Legislature.