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Ask Bob: As candidates vie for a rare Vermont vacancy, when was the last time a House and Senate seat were both open?

A brown mahogany writing desk from the U.S. Senate, within the drawer of which various senators, including Sen. Patrick Leahy, have written or carved their names.
U.S. Senate Collection
A mahogany writing desk used by Sen. Patrick Leahy — and, as evidenced by the signatures, many other senators as well — during his 48-year career in the U.S. Senate. It’s one of 48 original desks created for the Senate in 1819 by the New York cabinetmaking firm T. Constantine & Co.

Sen. Patrick Leahy will not seek another term in office, planning to retire after serving 48 years in the U.S. Senate. Shortly after that, Rep. Peter Welch announced he would seek Leahy’s Senate seat. It’s a rare Vermont vacancy in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House, something that’s only happened a handful of times over the last century.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with senior political correspondent Bob Kinzel about the electoral anomaly for the latest installment of Ask Bob. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: So, is what's happening here in 2022 an unusual event for Vermont, or has this happened with some frequency in the past?

Bob Kinzel: Mitch, it really is quite unusual. In fact, since the direct election of senators — that was back in 1914 — it’s only happened three times before in Vermont history.

That was in 1974, when Sen. George Aiken retired; in 1988, when Sen. Bob Stafford retired; and in 2006, when Sen. Jim Jeffords retired.

Now, in each of these cases the person representing Vermont's sole seat in the U.S. House ran for that vacant Senate seat. And in two of these three cases this person was successful. So, this points to the importance of the U.S. House race in 2022, and the likelihood that the person who wins that race will be running for the Senate when there's another vacancy, which could be as early as 2024, when Bernie Sanders' term is up.

Well, Bob, why do you think this is the case that Vermont has not experienced a lot of turnover in its representation in Congress? Especially in these last six decades?

Mitch, it’s a great question and one that I posed to Linda Fowler, professor emerita of government at Dartmouth College. She thinks there's much less turnover in small states because there tends to be fewer strong challengers to the incumbents.

For instance, she says that in most states a current House member usually makes the strongest candidate to challenge an incumbent senator. So, if the state has 20 or 30 House members, there are a lot of people who would consider running for the Senate. But in Vermont, there's only one House member, and she feels that limits the number of challengers.

“So if the incumbents want to stick around, they do, and the turnover in those states tends to come from retirement, rather than electoral defeat. That's because there are just fewer people who are well positioned to be challengers.”

- Linda Fowler, professor emerita of government at Dartmouth College

Ever since the direct election of senators in 1914, no elected senator in Vermont has ever lost a bid for reelection. Nobody. Ever!

It helps explain how Vermont has had two senators cover a span of 82 years: that would be George Aiken, first elected in 1940 — he served 34 years — and Pat Leahy, who replaced Aiken, who will end up serving 48 years.

Wow. Well, since these vacancies really don't happen very often in Vermont, do we usually find that there's a pretty large number of candidates running for these offices once there is an opening?

We absolutely do. Given the incredible power of incumbency for the Senate and the House, anybody in Vermont who's even thinking about running for federal office has to jump in whenever a vacancy occurs. That's really a key.

Fowler describes this situation as a now or never decision for many people:

“The members feel a lot of — if they want to move up to the Senate — they feel like they really need to throw their hats in the ring or they won't get another chance.”

- Linda Fowler, Professor Emerita of Government at Dartmouth College

So we may end up seeing a fair number of people running for the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House in 2022. I think there's going to be a lot of competition for both the Democratic and Republican nominations in those races. And there also could be a lot of independent candidates as well.

Well, Sen. Leahy ,is retiring after nearly half a century in the Senate. During the time, he’s served in a lot of leadership roles, based in part on his seniority. So, I'm wondering, how will his leaving office affect the state of Vermont?

Mitch, I don't think there's any question that Vermont is going to lose some clout — and important clout — in the U.S. Senate when Sen. Leahy retires. That's because of the leadership positions that he's held.

Fowler points out that seniority is the most effective way for senators from small states to gain power in the Senate.

“They have to use institutional power, whether it's party leadership or committee chairmanships. And let's not forget that Leahy ended up giving up his chairmanship of [the Judiciary Committee] to be chair of Appropriations, which was a huge vantage point to be influential.”

- Linda Fowler, professor emerita of government at Dartmouth College

And through that leadership position on the Appropriations Committee, Leahy has been instrumental in making sure that small states like Vermont get a fair allotment of all federal funds. It's a mechanism known as the “small state minimum,” and a good example of this is the recent passage of the trillion-dollar “physical infrastructure” bill. Vermont is expected to receive $2.2 billion from this new law.

I think it's fair to say, Mitch, that Vermont has never had as much clout in the U.S. Senate as it does right now, with Leahy as the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Bernie Sanders as the chairman of the Budget Committee.

Well, Bob, as you perused elections statistics for this segment, I'm wondering what other historical gems you may have noticed as you studied that.

Mitch, I came across a couple. One, I was struck that most of Vermont's U.S. Senate races really aren't very close over the years. The winning candidates tend to win by pretty wide margins, anywhere from 10% to 40%.

Now, there are two exceptions to this. They both involve Pat Leahy.

When he ran for the first time in 1974, he won by roughly 4,000 votes. It was very close. And then in his first bid for reelection in 1980, he squeaked by with a margin of roughly 2,500 votes. That's when he dubbed himself “Landslide Leahy.” That was really the last close election that he ever had.

Also, Pat Leahy has the distinction — through his long career — of being the youngest person ever to be elected to the Senate from Vermont. And, when he steps down, he'll be the oldest person to ever serve in the Senate from Vermont.

And I thought another interesting note was, in 1968, nobody challenged George Aiken in his final reelection bid. Aiken, who was a Republican, also had the Democratic nomination that year. And this situation allowed him to famously spend $17 — a total of $17 — on his entire Senate reelection campaign. I think that money was used for postage.

And as has been pointed out recently, Vermont has never elected a woman to Congress. And Professor Fowler thinks this is mostly due to the power of incumbency and how hard it is to defeat incumbents. And she says this situation is likely to change in 2022, because there are more women now who have gained a lot of political experience in positions of leadership in the legislature, and a bunch of them are considering a run for the congressional seat.

And as we said, Bob, we do expect a lot of candidates to be seeking Vermont's open political offices for 2022. Democrat Niki Thran of Warren is committed to seeking Leahy's seat, and state Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky from Essex is also considering a run.

That’s right, we're going to have a bunch of independent candidates as well.

One who has filed with the [Federal Election Commission] is child actor Brock Pierce, who you might remember in the Mighty Ducks movie, and in D2: The Mighty Ducks [sequel]. He also made a lot of money as a cryptocurrency entrepreneur. His net worth is somewhere between $800 million and $2 billion. And he says he wants to run an active race in Vermont, so he could end up spending a fair amount of money on his candidacy.

Have questions, comments, or concerns? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts to @mwertlieb.

Editor's note: The story has been updated to more accurately reflect Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky's current plans for a possible Senate run.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.
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