(Headline USA) Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the longest-serving current member of the Senate, said Monday he will not seek reelection next year to the seat he has held for eight terms.
Leahy, 81, said he and his wife, Marcelle, have concluded that “it is time to pass the torch to the next Vermonter who will carry on this work for our great state. It’s time to come home.”
If Leahy or his 80-year-old Senate counterpart, socialist independent Bernie Sanders, were to become incapacitated, Republican Gov. Phil Scott‘s replacement could potentially shift the power balance in the evenly-split Senate, putting greater urgency on Democrats to plan a graceful departure for Leahy.
That transition will be critical to Democrats who hope to maintain control of the Senate after next year’s midterm elections. With the chamber evenly divided, the party can’t afford to lose any of its current seats.
Nonetheless, the announcement marks the end of a political era. First elected to the Senate in 1974, Leahy is the last of the so-called Watergate babies who were elected after President Richard Nixon’s resignation.
During Leahy’s nearly half-century in the Senate, Vermont shifted from one of the most solidly Republican states in the country to one of its most progressive.
Leahy will leave the Senate with a record of promoting human rights, working to ban landmines and protect individual privacy rights. He has been a champion of the environment, especially of Lake Champlain, the body of water that separates northern Vermont from upstate New York.
He also is known for a quirky side, defined by his love for Batman and the Grateful Dead. He has appeared in five Batman movies, telling the Joker in The Dark Knight in 2008 that “We’re not intimidated by thugs.” He’s also attended at least a half-dozen Dead concerts, including viewing some from the stage itself.
“Would I call myself a Deadhead? With pride,” he wrote once.
By retiring and creating the first vacancy in Vermont’s congressional delegation since 2006, Leahy sets up a scramble to succeed him.
Matthew Dickinson, a political science professor at Middlebury College, said a likely choice to succeed Leahy would be Rep. Peter Welch, the state’s lone member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Dickinson said that Welch’s fundraising is going well and noted that the 74-year-old Welch has enjoyed consistently high approval ratings.
“I think he would be the logical candidate, and that would set up the musical chairs about who replaces him in Congress,” Dickinson said.
On the Republican side, it’s unclear whether Scott, who frequently criticized former President Donald Trump and has called for civility in politics, would be interested in running.
Scott praised Leahy in a statement after the senator’s announcement, calling him an “incredible champion for Vermonters.” He did not address a possible successor or say whether he would be interested in the seat.
“It is thanks to him, and the funding he’s secured for our state, that Vermont is in a position to come out of this pandemic stronger than before and tackle big challenges from broadband and infrastructure to the opioid crisis,” Scott said.
Leahy is chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the senior-most member of both the Senate Judiciary and Agriculture committees. Earlier this year, Leahy, during his third stint as president pro tem of the Senate, presided over the second impeachment trial of then-President Donald Trump.
In September, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the longest-serving Republican senator, said he would seek an eighth term in 2022, giving the party more confidence in holding that seat as it fights to overtake the Democrats’ one-vote advantage thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris’ role as tiebreaker.
Leahy said he was proud of his service to his state and his work to make a difference for residents of Vermont.
“I know I have been there for my state when I was needed most. I know I have taken our best ideas and helped them grow. I brought Vermont’s voice to the United States Senate and Vermont values across the world,” he said.
Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press