Bernie Sanders Could Snuff Out a Potential Primary Contest to Replace Patrick Leahy

A Vermont state representative is contemplating a challenge to Peter Welch for Leahy's Senate seat, but only if Sanders steps back.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., speaks to the press at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 2, 2021. Photo: Pete Marovich/Getty Images

Sen. Patrick Leahy, the longest serving Democrat in the Senate, held a press conference on Monday morning in the Vermont Statehouse, announcing that he will not seek reelection in 2022. Leahy stepping back opens up a new likely Democratic seat, raising the question of whether Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., will endorse the state’s lone congressional representative, Peter Welch, or allow an open primary to play out.

Welch, a Democrat, is known to be planning a run to replace Leahy if and when he retires. If Sanders endorses Welch, he functionally forecloses any challenge from the left. State Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky is also contemplating a run for Senate if Leahy steps down but told The Intercept she won’t do so if Sanders gets behind Welch. “I don’t want to lose any capacity I have [in the state legislature] in a race that’s unwinnable,” she said. “That is a big piece of this — if Bernie is going to endorse Peter there’s not much point doing it.”

Vyhovsky broadly shares Sanders’s politics and was endorsed by him the previous two cycles. Meanwhile, Welch and Sanders are much closer personally than they are politically. If Sanders does freeze the field by endorsing Welch, it would come out of personal loyalty rather than as a way to advance his political revolution. His penchant for such loyalty was on display during the presidential campaign, when he repeatedly resisted efforts by advisers to get him to go on the attack against Joe Biden. “Joe is a friend,” he would often say.

Leahy remains popular in Vermont as well. Asked by The Intercept if he planned to endorse a candidate or allow a race to play out, Leahy said recently that he wasn’t ready to make a public statement either way. Sanders, historically, has taken large amounts of time to make endorsements; Vermont political observers and those around Sanders are unsure if he’ll endorse Welch. (A Sanders spokesperson declined to comment.)

Welch was caught up in a scandal recently when the Washington Post and “60 Minutes” revealed he was one of three Democrats who’d pushed for a law that tied the Drug Enforcement Administration’s hands when it came to going after pill mills fueling the opioid epidemic, which was — and still is — raging in Vermont.

It later emerged Welch was trading stocks in companies involved with the legislation, including buying hundreds of thousands’ worth of Rite Aid stock as the company lobbied for the law.

While the state is a safe vote for Democrats in presidential elections, Vermont’s Republican Gov. Phil Scott is widely popular and cruised to reelection in 2020, smashing the Democrat by 41 percentage points. He’s up for reelection in 2022 — the state’s governor serves two-year terms — and has previously said he’s not interested in running for Senate, though national Republicans will no doubt pressure him otherwise.

Republicans were dealt a blow last week when neighboring Republican New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu declined a run for the Senate, citing the chamber’s hopelessly partisan nature. Republicans have multiple other pickup opportunities, including in Georgia and Arizona, and are confident in their ability to seize the upper chamber.

When Leahy was first elected to the Senate in 1974 in the blue wave following Watergate, he was the first Democrat ever to win in the state. His run was made more difficult by a third-party candidate who gained real traction. A young Bernie Sanders was perennially the nominee of the Liberty Union Party and had already run multiple times for Senate and the governor’s office, never breaking double digits. Sanders ended up winning just over 4 percent and Leahy won his race by about 4,000 votes.

Sanders would soon retire from politics and devote himself to media. Of course, Sanders didn’t stay retired, becoming the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in 1981 and then winning election to Congress as an independent in 1990. He and Leahy have had something of an alliance since, as Sanders has danced delicately in and out of the Democratic Party. In 2006, when the other Vermont Senate seat opened up, Sanders ran for it, won the Democratic primary, then rejected the party line and ran as an independent in the general election. The state party voted to unanimously endorse him anyway and didn’t field a Democrat. He’s remained an independent but caucuses with Democrats, and continues to run in Democratic primaries.

In 2006, Welch, then a state senator, ran for the House seat, took the Democratic primary uncontested, and went on to win the general election fairly easily. Welch and Sanders have been strong allies since, even though Sanders is well to Welch’s left. In 2016, Welch endorsed Sanders for president — sparking jokes in Vermont that Welch was hoping to help open up his future Senate seat — while Leahy backed Hillary Clinton.

Vyhovsky was raised working class in Essex Junction, Vermont, in a single-parent home, and serves as a social worker alongside her statehouse service, which only began in 2020 when she successfully ousted a Republican representative. Vyhovsky said that Welch is well liked personally in the small state and widely considered to be a “good guy.”

“That’s fine, go have a beer with him, but he doesn’t have to be your representative,” she said. “Peter is fine, I guess, but people are desperate for change, they’re desperate for broader representation and new voices and different voices.”

Update: November 15, 2021
On Monday morning, Sen. Patrick Leahy announced he won’t, in fact, seek reelection in 2022. The piece has been updated to reflect his retirement.

Join The Conversation