Election 2022 Vermont Senate

FILE - Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., questions former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. Welch, Vermont's sole member of the U.S. House of Representatives, announced Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, that he will run for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, who has said he won't seek reelection.

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BURLINGTON — U.S. Rep. Peter Welch announced Monday he is running for the U.S. Senate seat that will open in 2022 when Sen. Patrick Leahy does not seek re-election.

The announcement, which was widely expected, is the next in a line of dominoes that began falling a week ago when Leahy, the Senate President Pro Tempore, said he would not seek a ninth six-year term in Washington. 

Welch, 74, of Norwich has served in the House since 2006. He told The Associated Press his experience in building coalitions would serve him well.

“The way you get things done in Washington is by building coalitions,” he told AP. “What I've demonstrated in the state Senate and in Congress is to continue to reach out and work with anybody who wants to help solve problems that are affecting all of us. It is the way forward."

Welch's decision now opens the state's Congressional seat for the first time since 2006, when Welch succeeded U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. Three women — state Sen. Becca Balint of Brattleboro, state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale of Burlington and Lt. Governor Molly Gray — have all shown interest in seeking the Democratic nomination. Vermont is the only state to never send a woman to Congress. 

A Republican has yet to publicly come forward to express interest in the seat.

"We are at a pivotal moment,” Welch, D-Vt., said in a statement announcing his candidacy early Monday. “Vermont families are struggling through multiple crises: a global pandemic, the consequences of climate change and a racial reckoning generations in the making. The result of this election will determine control of the Senate and with it, what we can accomplish for Vermont families. If Vermonters elect me to the U.S. Senate, I will be ready to fight for progressive change on day one."

On Monday, Ram Hinsdale said she would explore a campaign for Welch's seat.

"I will continue to prioritize the needs and voices of my fellow Vermonters as I make this decision. Today, I am focused on the rising case count in the pandemic and navigating our path forward for the safety and well-being of all Vermonters," Ram Hinsdale said.

At one point on Monday, after the Vermont Senate completed its Special Session work at the State House, all three women were being interviewed by reporters in the second floor Legislative lobby. None of the three announced intentions to seek Welch's seat, but all said they were thinking about the possible run ahead and supporting Welch's bid for the U.S. Senate.

Balint said she texted Welch on Monday morning and wished him good luck.

“I’m very excited that he’s jumping in and I am a big supporter of his and hope he’ll be successful in his bid,” Balint said. “And you can bet that over the next few days and weeks I will be making that decision about next steps.”

“I have so much respect for Congressman Welch,” said Gray, who worked for him in 2006 when he first ran for the U.S. House. She reiterated an earlier statement that she will take the Thanksgiving holiday to think about her future. 

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Ram Hinsdale also wished the best to Welch, saying his leadership will be valuable in the Senate. The most important part of her decision, she said, is hearing from Vermonters what they need.

“People have talked about my historic presence as the first woman of color in the state Senate, but people can't eat that for dinner,” Ram Hinsdale said. “They need to know that I understand what they’re facing and will fight for all Vermonters in Washington.”

Welch reaffirmed his focus on ensuring Vermont’s working families have access to child care and paid family leave, passing a Green New Deal, lowering health care and prescription drug costs, ensuring that women continue to have control over their own health care decisions and protecting voting rights and our democracy.

“I was there on Jan. 6 when the Capitol was stormed by a violent mob fueled by the former president’s lies. Too many Senate Republicans stood behind him instead of telling the truth: It was an attack on our democracy and an attempt to overturn a free and fair election. Senate Republicans continue to sow division for their own political gain instead of working together to get things done.”

Welch said even in the face of these challenges, he is optimistic. “I've seen Vermonters come together to solve problems. We focus on solutions, not who gets credit. That’s the Vermont way. That’s how I’ve gotten things done as Vermont’s congressman, and how I will get things done if I am elected to the U.S. Senate.”

Endorsements and criticism both arrived Monday morning.

"Peter Welch understands that if we are going to combat the existential threat of climate change, establish universal health care, lower the cost of prescription drugs, create good paying jobs in Vermont and protect American democracy, now is the time to think big, not small," U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said in endorsing Welch. "With his years in Congress, Peter has the knowledge and experience to hit the ground running as a strong advocate for Vermont's working families and to fight for a government that works for all, and not just the wealthy few."

The state Republican Party was less enthusiastic, saying Welch had already set a "dark tone" for the campaign ahead. Party chairman Paul Dame said he is talking to private citizens and currently elected officials "to gauge interest in this and other statewide offices. "

"Welch has been in Congress for over a decade, and Vermont’s delegation has caucused with Democratic leadership this whole time," Dame said. "Democrats control the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate and the presidency. And Peter Welch is concerned about our 'imperiled Democracy.' If our Democracy is imperiled, I think it begs the question, whose leadership brought us there?"

Dame said Welch's statement made the case that new leadership is needed.

"Welch is already following the national campaign model to win votes by motivating people with fear, and Vermonters want and expect something better," Dame said.

"Our candidates aren’t going to spend $6 million telling us what is wrong with our state and our country — but instead will provide a hope for a better future — one that works better than the life we are all living now under the control of Joe Biden and the Democrats."

Greg Sukiennik covers government and politics for Vermont News & Media. Reach him at gsukiennik@benningtonbanner.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.