Welch Announces He'll Run for Leahy's Senate Seat | Off Message

Welch Announces He'll Run for Leahy's Senate Seat

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Rep. Peter Welch - FILE ©️ SEVEN DAYS
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  • Rep. Peter Welch
Updated at 3:30 p.m.

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) will run for the Senate seat left open by the upcoming retirement of Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt).

In a brief statement, the congressman focused on the battle he’ll wage for a progressive agenda. “We are at a pivotal moment,” Welch said in the statement. “Vermont families are struggling through multiple crises: a global pandemic, the consequences of climate change, and a racial reckoning generations in the making.”

Welch had been widely expected to make a bid to switch chambers after Leahy announced last week that he won’t be seeking a ninth term in the 2022 election.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) promptly endorsed Welch's run.

"With his years in Congress, Peter has the knowledge and experience to hit the ground running as a strong advocate for Vermont's working families and to fight for a government that works for all, and not just the wealthy few," Sanders said in a statement. "That's why I'm proud to endorse Peter today and look forward to serving with him in the Senate."

Monday afternoon, Welch, who had helped Leahy in his first run for Senate in 1974, said he was one of many Vermonters who had hoped the powerful Senator would run again. But when Leahy announced he'd retire, Welch decided the issues he cared about were too urgent to leave to chance.

“This is a critical moment, both for democracy and for the direction of our country,” Welch said. “We need effectiveness now. We can’t wait about addressing climate change. We can’t wait for addressing the challenges that working families face. We can’t wait to defend our democracy.”

He recalled being in the House of Representatives January 6 when a mob stormed the Capitol to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. The threat that most concerned him, however, came after the insurgents were evicted and order restored.

“The most terrible thing of all was when 147 of my colleagues voted against certifying Joe Biden as the president who had been elected by the people of our country,” he said.

He cited both “tough fights” he’s won and ability to build coalitions as reasons he’ll be able to advance vital issues.

Welch also predicted there will be “a ferocious battle” for the seat given the balance of power in the Senate “hangs in the balance.”

Attention will now be on the several Democrats expected to announce their own campaigns. Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, Vermont Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) and state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale (D-Chittenden) have all expressed interest in running for Congress. State Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky (P/D-Essex) said last week that she’s looking into running for the Senate.

Gray said she has no intention of running against Welch for Leahy’s seat, but that she is “giving real consideration” to a run for Welch's seat in the House. She said she’ll spend time with family over Thanksgiving making a decision. She worked on Welch's 2006 Congressional campaign and served as an aide in his Washington, D.C., office in 2007.

“I believe Congressman Welch has served our state well,” Gray said

Ram Hinsdale issued a statement praising Welch for his “dedicated service and committed leadership.” She said she will be “deeply exploring a run for Congress to give Vermonters a fighter in Washington,” but for now was focused on the public health challenges facing the state as COVID-19 case counts rise.

Vermont is the only state that has never elected a woman to Congress. The state hasn't had an open congressional seat since 2006.

No likely Republican contenders have yet emerged. Popular Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who earned 67 percent of the vote in the 2020 election, affirmed last week that he doesn’t plan to run for Congress.
Paul Dame, the new chair of the VTGOP, said he was surprised by what he called the “dark tone” of Welch's remarks “about our imperiled democracy.”

“If our democracy is imperiled, I think it begs the question, ‘Whose leadership brought us there?’” Dame said in a video statement. He added: “Welch does not represent the new generation that Senator Leahy said should replace him," and he referred to Welch as a “relic of the past.”

Dame said he’ll been reaching out to potential Republican candidates for Congress.

At 74, Welch, who was elected to the U.S. House in 2006, cannot build up the kind of seniority that Leahy has in his 46 years in office. As president of the Senate, Leahy is third in line to succeed the president. He’s also chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Welch, a native of Springfield, Mass., is a lawyer who was first elected to the Vermont Senate in 1980 to represent Windsor County. He became Senate president pro tempore five years later — the first Democrat in Vermont history to hold that position, he says in the biography on his website.

Welch ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1990 against Republican Gov. Richard Snelling. Snelling died several months later as he served his fifth term.

In his 2014 memoir, The Vermont Way, former Republican governor Jim Douglas describes Welch as someone who can work successfully with politicians from both parties. The two interacted on school funding, dairy farmer assistance, and health care reform.

“Welch was results-oriented. He had strong views, but at the end of the day, he wanted to accomplish something,” Douglas wrote. 

Welch lives in Norwich with his wife Margaret Cheney, a member of the Vermont Public Utility Commission.

Correction: Then-governor Jim Douglas remained in office when Welch left the Vermont legislature. A previous version of this story contained an error.