It may be too soon for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to measure the drapes in the Oval Office. But as he continues to lead the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, the possibility that Sanders could leave the Senate for the White House has become, well, more possible.
"I mean, there's a lot of ifs there, obviously, but this conversation is probably much different today than it was a month ago," Vermont Gov. Phil Scott said Thursday.
So what would happen to Sanders' Senate seat if he were to move up Pennsylvania Avenue?
Under Vermont law, the governor has six months from the date a vacancy occurs to hold a special election. The winner would complete Sanders' term, which expires in January 2025. The governor is also empowered to appoint an interim senator to fill the post until the special election took place.
Scott, a Republican, said he would abide by Vermont's tradition of naming a replacement from the same party as the outgoing officeholder — in Sanders' case, an independent. The governor said he would not appoint anyone to the interim position who planned to run in the special election because doing so would give that person "a leg up" in the race.
"I wouldn't think that would be fair," he said. "So I'd probably try to find an independent who is not affiliated with either party and not seeking to become the next senator."
Scott said he would not necessarily pick an independent who would caucus with Senate Democrats, as Sanders does. That could have major ramifications for the balance of power in the Senate, depending on how evenly divided the body is after the 2020 election. When the late Vermont senator Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party in 2001 and became an independent who caucused with Democrats, it cost the GOP its majority.
"I think I would be looking for somebody that fits all the qualifications and is independent by nature, and I don't know [that] I would have a litmus test of any other sort," Scott said.
It's possible the decision wouldn't even be up to Scott. He is up for reelection this fall and hasn't said whether he will seek a third two-year term. Because Vermont's governor is sworn in two weeks before the president, the winner of this fall's gubernatorial race could end up filling a potential vacancy.
File: James Buck
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Progressive/Democrat, is one of at least two candidates vying for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. A close ally of Sanders', Zuckerman said that if he were governor, he would appoint "someone who embodies the issues and values of Sen. Sanders." Unlike Scott, he said he would prefer to name an interim senator who planned to run for the position.
"For Vermont's continuity, it would be better if someone was appointed who would be elected, rather than having a six-month senator and then a three-and-a-half-year senator," he said.
Zuckerman said he would be open to appointing either an independent or a Democrat, but he would only choose a candidate who committed to caucusing with the Democrats. Referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as "the worst politician in Washington," Zuckerman said he would have one litmus test: "I would not appoint anyone who would vote for [McConnell] to be majority leader."
Gender might also play a role in Zuckerman's decision, he said. "All else being equal, I would tilt towards a woman over a man — but issues come first," he said.
File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
Rebecca Holcombe, a former education secretary who is also seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, said she would only consider Democrats for the job.
"I would appoint the absolute best person and, yes, I would appoint a Democrat," she said. "I think the person who replaces the senator would be somebody who reflects the basic values and goals that Vermonters put [Sanders] in place to represent."
Holcombe said she did not have an opinion as to whether an interim senator should run in the special election, but she did express a preference for somebody who would bring gender diversity to a congressional delegation that has never included a woman.
"I think right now, given where we are in the Senate, I think it's particularly important to make sure we have women's voices at the table," she said. "Some of the issues that are really at stake, I think women may be uniquely positioned to speak to some of those."
According to Gregory Sanford, the former state archivist, no governor in recent Vermont history has appointed a senator from a different party than the person he replaced. That's largely a function of the fact that, from 1855 until 1963, every Vermont governor and senator was a Republican.
The last senatorial appointment was in 1971, following the death of Republican senator Winston Prouty. Governor Deane Davis, a member of the GOP, appointed then-U.S. representative Robert Stafford, also a Republican, to fill the position on an interim basis. The next year, Stafford won a special election to finish Prouty's term.
Among the candidates Stafford defeated that year? Liberty Union nominee Bernie Sanders, who won 2.2 percent of the vote.