Eric Davis: Election could affect Sen. Leahy

Sen. Patrick Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, announced on Monday that he will not be a candidate for re-election when his term ends in 2022. He also stated that he will not be a candidate for governor of Pennsylvania in 2022. Toomey said one of the reasons he made the announcement more than two years in advance was to give other Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate and governor time to organize their campaigns.

In recent election cycles, U.S. senators not running for re-election have typically announced their plans to retire, or to seek another office, between 18 and 24 months before the end of their terms. Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy’s term also runs through the end of 2022. Toomey’s retirement announcement raises the question of whether Leahy might also announce his retirement early in 2021.

Leahy is the most senior senator in terms of service, having first been elected to the Senate in 1974. At 80 years old, Leahy is not the oldest member of the Senate. Five senators — Dianne Feinstein of California, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Richard Shelby of Alabama, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, and Pat Roberts of Kansas — are all older than Leahy. Roberts will be retiring at the end of this year, while Inhofe, who will turn 86 on Nov. 17, is running for re-election, and is an overwhelming favorite to win another term.

Leahy’s decision about running again will certainly be influenced by whether or not the Democrats have a majority in the Senate in 2021. Leahy has spent 46 years in the Senate, and during that time the chamber has been controlled by the Democrats for 24 years and the Republicans for 22. Leahy has said, not surprisingly, that he much prefers to be a member of the majority party than of the minority party.

If Democrats win enough seats next month to organize the Senate in January, Leahy would probably become chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee in the next Congress. I say “probably” because Leahy is also the most senior member of the Judiciary Committee and the Agriculture Committee and could, if he wishes, chair one of those committees (more likely Judiciary than Agriculture). However, since the Appropriations Committee’s jurisdiction includes spending programs all across the federal government, Leahy would likely choose to chair that panel.

If the Republicans maintain control of the Senate in this year’s elections, Leahy would continue as a member of the minority party for the next two years. In these circumstances, he would be more likely to retire, unless the Republican majority was so small that Democrats would have a good possibility of overturning it in 2022.

Leahy has been in the Senate for the last 46 years. His predecessor, George Aiken, held that Senate seat for 34 years. Vermont’s other U.S. senator, Bernie Sanders, will have been a member of Congress for 30 years next January — 16 years in the House and 14 in the Senate. Vermont’s U.S. House member, Peter Welch, will also have served 14 years in January. Welch’s seniority rank in the House is now 119 out of 435, and will be higher next year.

I do not know whether Leahy will decide to retire or to run for re-election to a ninth term. As noted above, a colleague older than him is running for re-election this year. Whatever his decision, it would be useful for the people of Vermont, and for possible successors should he decide to retire, for him to announce that decision in the first half of 2021. 

If Leahy does retire, the August 2022 Democratic primary election would be as important as the November 2022 general election in determining his successor. Candidates would need at least a full year to build organizations and raise money for what would be a very competitive, multi-candidate primary.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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