Peter Welch will run for the Senate seat being vacated by Patrick Leahy

VERMONT — U.S. Rep. Peter Welch will run for the Senate seat that will be vacated by Sen. Patrick Leahy this year, he said Thursday.

Welch, 65, who currently represents Vermont’s 2nd District in the House of Representatives, told the Burlington Free Press that he had long contemplated a Senate bid and notified officials with the Democratic Party last week.

“I’ve had the idea in the back of my mind for quite some time and it will probably take me all year,” Welch told the newspaper.

He said he believed that Democratic Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who has not said if he will seek re-election, is qualified for the job, but also said, “I’m certainly capable of being an excellent senator. … We’ve been through a difficult time over the last few years, and I think we need a strong voice for Democrats in Washington, D.C. and that’s what I’d bring to the table.”

The choice of Welch was a surprise given his popular and high-profile state following. He is considered a progressive liberal.

Like his former House colleague and close friend, Sanders, Welch has roots in New England and is a former mayor of Burlington. However, like Sanders, Welch has had a rise to prominence among progressives nationwide rather than having been a labor union leader or business leader in a swing state or in a non-presidential election year.

Welch defeated Republican Marc Racicot in the 2006 gubernatorial race, and also co-chaired President Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign.

The 2016 presidential primary and the impact of national Democrats working hard against a senator who had been a Washington insider and had ties to organized labor likely weighed heavily in his decision to run, said pollster Christopher Borick, who directs the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion.

Welch, he said, had never held elective office when he won the House seat, but that didn’t matter.

“You might say it was the Biden factor, not the Obama factor,” Borick said. “It might have been the concerns that Sanders brings and that’s why he’s leading in the polls, but it might be because a lot of people in Vermont believe in him.”

As a congressman, Welch has made strides for Vermont that he thought would have little national resonance had he not had such a national following.

He introduced the “Parent Empowerment Act,” legislation that would establish a formal review process for all publicly funded, privately run and managed charter schools in Vermont, and he pushed successfully for an energy efficiency rating for all school buildings in the state that is now being phased in.

Welch also co-sponsored the “No Labels Act,” which aimed to get Democrats and Republicans working together, and his co-sponsorship led to passage of legislation limiting the time someone can sue a public school to two years, a measure that was backed by his fellow Democratic congressman, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.

“I just think it’s a lot of pieces that he has put in place in Vermont that will play out in our national politics,” Borick said.

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin said Welch had brought together “various factions in our party.”

“I just think he’s a very successful person, he knows where to find money,” Shumlin said. “He’s certainly going to take the job seriously. He’s not going to take it lightly, he’s not the kind of person that you just walk in and see him sitting around on his butt.”

Welch said he’s optimistic that Vermont — and especially his district — can play a role in returning Democrats to the White House and Capitol Hill.

“I’m looking forward to the work,” he said. “I love what I do, and I love being able to put Vermont back in the forefront of the political discussion.”

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