When the word came out Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., would seek reelection next year, historians and political junkies nationwide quickly took notice.
Should Leahy, 81, win a ninth term, he would – in three years – become the longest-serving Senator in U.S. history.
Some 46 years and four months after he became the Green Mountain State’s first and only Democrat senator (colleague Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is actually an independent who runs with Democrat endorsement), Leahy is the fifth-longest serving Senator in history.
In another five months, he will overtake the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., for fourth place in terms of longevity in the Senate.
The longest-serving senator is Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. who served from 1959 until his death in 2010 (51 years, 5 months). He is followed by Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, (49 years, 11 months), and South Carolina Democrat-turned-Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond (47 years, 5 months).
Republicans, Democrats, and independents agree Leahy is also his state’s most powerful and influential senator. As president pro tempore of the Senate, he is third in line to the presidency and also serves as chairman of the all-powerful Appropriations Committee.
That all seemed a pipe dream 46 years ago to the young Chittenden County State Attorney Leahy. His political mentor Phil Hoff, Vermont’s first Democrat governor, had named him to fill a vacancy in the prosecutorial post and Leahy went on to be elected on his own.
Leahy wanted to be governor like his hero Hoff, but in 1972, Vermonters elected a second Democrat governor in Thomas Salmon. Two years later, Leahy ran for the open seat of the venerable Sen. George Aiken, R-Vt. In a major upset, he eked out a victory over Republican Rep.-at-large Richard Malary, considered Aiken’s heir apparent.
Six years later, as Ronald Reagan was elected president in a landslide, Leahy faced a formidable challenger in centrist Republican and State Banking Commissioner Stewart Ledbetter. In the nation’s closest Senate race, Leahy was reelected by a wafer-thin 2,700 votes.
He never had trouble at the polls since. A sign of his current standing is the stream of praise for Leahy from Vermont’s Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who inevitably tells reporters he has no interest in running for the Senate himself.