Why a ninth term for Leahy is more likely than not

Vermont Democrat has hands on a long-coveted gavel, and eyes on history

Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy could make history if he wins a ninth term, Nelson writes.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy could make history if he wins a ninth term, Nelson writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 1, 2021 at 6:00am

A pair of runoff victories in Georgia in January helped Democrats win control of the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote in the 50-50 chamber.

Most enhanced by the party shift was Vermont Democrat Patrick J. Leahy, who as the longest-serving majority member became Senate president pro tempore and third in the presidential line of succession. Democratic control also gave Leahy the chairmanship of the all-powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, a post he waited 44 years to attain.

The Senate is up for grabs in 2022, with 14 Democratic seats and 20 Republican seats on the line. Five GOP incumbents are checking out – Richard Burr of North Carolina, Rob Portman of Ohio, Richard Shelby of Alabama, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. Republicans are hoping that Govs. Phil Scott of Vermont and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire will run against Leahy and Democrat Maggie Hassan respectively. While Sununu has yet to announce, Scott has no intention of running.

While Leahy, 81, gained national attention presiding over the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, his campaign war chest is smaller than in prior contests and with his beloved wife and steadfast campaign asset, Marcelle, recently treated for cancer, some have speculated that he will not run for a ninth term.

Leahy entered the Senate at the age of 34 in 1975, 48 years younger than George D. Aiken, the 82-year-old Republican senator he replaced. Leahy has spent most of his life in the Senate, and when his service is combined with Aiken’s, it shows that just two men held one seat for more than 80 years — or just over one-third of the time there has been a U.S. Senate. This unusual feat was achieved because no senator from Vermont has ever lost a popular reelection.

Running for a ninth term is not unprecedented. Sens. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Dan Inouye of Hawaii and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts all won nine Senate elections. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who served in the Senate until the age of 100, ran 10 times, losing once and winning three times as a Democrat and six as a Republican.

Leahy, currently the fifth-longest-serving senator in history, can surpass Kennedy in Senate longevity later this month and Thurmond next June. Only nine-termers Byrd and Inouye will then have served longer, and both chaired Senate Appropriations. This is not a post one walks away from. A ninth term in 2022 for Leahy would enable him to pass Byrd and Inouye and become the longest-serving senator in American history.

Leahy previously chaired the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry and Judiciary panels but Appropriations, which controls government spending, is the Senate’s largest and most important committee. Many friends are made through Appropriations Committee decisions, and appropriators’ ability “to bring home the bacon” benefits their reelection prospects.  With Congress recently lifting prohibitions on “earmarks,” even more friends can be made now and in the near future. As chairman, Leahy’s power position has been enhanced and Vermont’s share of the federal budget will increase as well.

Currently, Leahy holds all the cards and how they are played is a source of much speculation. With the popular (and vocally anti-Trump) Scott not running for Senate, my money is on Leahy seeking — and winning — a ninth term.

Garrison Nelson is an emeritus professor at the University of Vermont, the author of “John William McCormack: A Political Biography” and an editor of the seven-volume “Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1789-2010.”