BY ANGELO LYNN
MONTPELIER — As expected, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., announced early Monday that after 14 years in the 435-member House of Representatives he’ll run for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Patrick Leahy at the end of 2022.
“I’m all in and ready to go,” Welch said in a brief phone interview with The Reporter on Monday afternoon. Welch said he was surprised by Leahy’s decision not to run for reelection, and that he had hoped Leahy would run for another term for Vermont’s sake (in his powerful role as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee), but Welch said Sen. Leahy had “made his decision and I had to make mine.”
Welch called on Vermonters to join him in fighting for a progressive agenda in the Senate.
“We are at a pivotal moment,” Welch said. “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.”
Welch, 74, outlined the key focus of his campaign and his agenda in the Senate if elected. He said he would continue to work hard to: make sure Vermont’s working families have access to childcare and paid family leave; pass a Green New Deal; lower health care and prescription drug costs; ensure that women continue to have control over their own health care decisions, and protect voting rights and the nation’s democracy.
Welch said the question of whether to run “actually was pretty straightforward.” If Republicans successfully flip the Senate, he said, big-ticket Democratic policy priorities such as climate change mitigation, tax reform, voting rights legislation and abortion access are off the table.
“All of these things are very much in the balance as to whether or not we have a 50-50 Senate or maintain a progressive Democratic voice in the U.S. Senate for Vermont,” he said.
He said he believes democracy would face peril should Republicans take back the Senate, and said he is “absolutely” afraid of the potential ramifications. With Republican-dominated legislatures across the country passing state-level voting restrictions, Welch said, “we are on a knife’s edge” as a country.
“The other thing that was searing for me, and I think it was for the entire country, was what happened on Jan. 6,” Welch said. “I was in the Capitol and I was there when the mob was breaking the doors down. I was there when the shot was fired. And that was horrifying. But what was most sad for me, and worrisome for me, was when 147 of my colleagues later voted to disregard the will of the American people at who they had elected to be the president.”
Leahy announced last week that he would retire after nearly 50 years of service after his current term ending in 2022, triggering the first open seat in Vermont’s three-member congressional delegation since 2007 — when Welch first assumed his current seat in the House.
Should he win the Senate seat, Welch would follow in the footsteps of Sanders, who also rose from the House to the Senate when former Sen. Jim Jeffords retired in 2007.
Sanders put his political weight behind Welch, announcing his endorsement of Welch’s Senate run on Monday morning. Pointing to Welch’s 14 years in the House, Sanders said Welch “has the knowledge and experience to hit the ground running” in the Senate.
“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,” Sanders said in a statement from his campaign.
Democrats currently hold a razor-thin 50-50 majority in the Senate. Welch stressed in his campaign launch that the result of Vermont’s Senate race “will determine control of the Senate and with it, what we can accomplish for Vermont families.”
“Everything — voting rights, Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, lowering prescription drug costs, reproductive justice, racial and economic justice, everything — gets filibustered and blocked by the Mitch McConnell Republicans in the Senate,” he said in his campaign ad. “They’re fighting for failure.”
Asked how he would navigate the Senate’s extreme partisanship, Welch said “every single day, you’ve got to be interacting with your colleagues in good faith.”
“There are some Republicans who will do anything to hurt the other party, to make sure no progress is made when a Democrat is leading the country. And you know, you’re not going to get anywhere with them,” Welch said. “But that’s not my approach. I’ve worked across the aisle every since I was elected to the House,” he said. Working to form alliances and get things done is the Vermont way, Welch said.
“It’s what I did when I served in the Vermont Senate, and it’s what I did as a member of Congress, and it’s what I’m going to continue to do if I’m elected to the Senate,” he said.
Asked about his biggest concern facing the country, Welch didn’t hesitate: “I have enormous concerns that our democracy is in peril,” he said of the anti-democratic actions taken to limit voting rights in many Republican-led states. “The Senate is not working … The essential question of our times is will our democracy survive the turmoil” caused by a political party that is basing much of its actions on known lies and continues to try to mislead the country with misinformation campaigns.
“To combat that,” Welch said, “we need to do two things: pass a federal voting rights law that protects the rights of all voters; and we have to make government work for everyday people — for the working poor and middleclass, not just the richest few. That’s why the infrastructure bill was so important to pass, and it’s why the Build Back Better bill is crucial — we have to show that government can work for everybody.”
RACE FOR THE HOUSE
By launching his Senate campaign, Welch opens the door to the role he now holds: the state’s at-large representative in the U.S. House. No one has launched an official campaign, but Democratic rising stars have signaled interest, including Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, and Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden.
From across the aisle, Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who currently holds the title as America’s most popular governor, has said he has no desire to go to Washington.
Meanwhile, Balint, Gray and Ram Hinsdale have shown no appetite to challenge Welch in the Democratic primary for the Senate seat. Welch will have to withstand any challenges from within his party in a primary election before moving on to the general election in November 2022.
Open seats in Vermont’s congressional delegation also offer a chance for generational change. Leahy is currently 81 years old, Sanders 80 and Welch 74.
Asked by VTDigger what he makes of the notion that Vermont should elect a younger politician to Leahy’s seat, Welch said, “Every Vermonter, whether they’re running for public office, or they’re serving in the local selectboard, has to make a decision: How can I help? How can I help heal our country? How can I help save our democracy?
“Everybody’s invited to that and everybody has to make their own individual decision, regardless of who they are, and where they are,” he continued. “I’ve made a decision that’s based on my life circumstances. It’s based on the fact that I’ve been a very effective member of Congress, and it’s also based on the urgency of the moment. … And that is, given my experience, given my success in getting in the hard fights and winning, that I believe I can best serve by being a candidate for U.S. Senate. And I respect the decision that every other Vermonter makes.”