Why One of America's Most Progressive States Still Hasn't Sent a Woman to Congress

Vermont's representatives are left-wing stars, but institutional advantages have given them a leg up on the women who hope to come next.

Peter Welch, Sen. Patrick Leahy, and Bernie Sanders celebrating on Nov. 7, 2006, in Burlington, Vt., after Welch was first elected to the House and Sanders was first elected to the Senate
AP Photo/Toby Talbot
Add to Briefcase
Mini Racker
Feb. 20, 2019, 8 p.m.

A milestone for Mississippi, which elected a woman to Congress for the first time in November, was an embarrassment for Vermont. Despite its progressive reputation, the Green Mountain State is now the only state that has never sent a woman to Washington.

Vermont has only one congressional district, so it has had fewer opportunities to do so. That still hasn’t stopped the other six one-district states, although it has slowed some of them; Wyoming, Alaska, and Delaware were three of the last seven states to elect a woman to national office. The first state to elect a woman, Montana, currently has only one district, although it had two when Jeannette Rankin won her seat in 1916. Montana has not elected a woman since.

But additional factors have put Vermont in last place, including the state’s long-serving congressional delegation.

All three members are white-haired men with progressive leanings: Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is now mulling another presidential run; Sen. Patrick Leahy, whose 44-year tenure makes him the most senior member of the Senate; and 71-year-old Rep. Peter Welch, the junior of the group, who has worked in the Capitol for only 13 years.

Few women are so eager to make history that they’re willing to take on such celebrated incumbents. The congressmen are wildly popular and well-known in their home state—in fact, the senators from Vermont have the highest approval ratings in the country.

“[Our representatives] are getting the job done, so there’s not a huge uprising of people saying, ‘Hey, he’s not doing his job, we need to run against him,’” said state Sen. Ruth Hardy. “That needs to be said. They’re very effective.”

Vermont’s members of Congress are beloved partly because they are champions of equality, but since they have been in office for decades, their identities reflect the norms of decades past. Incumbency advantage keeps powerful people in power. Historically, those people have been men. The status of Sanders, Leahy, and Welch effectively puts a ceiling on the careers of Vermont’s female politicians, many of whom are waiting for one of them to step down before putting themselves forward.

“We have a lot of women who’ve been in the pipeline for years,” Hardy said.

Until recently, Hardy served as executive director of Emerge Vermont, a group dedicated to electing Democratic women to office. In many ways, it has been extremely successful; the proportion of women in the Vermont legislature is just under 40 percent. Until 2019, this was the highest percentage in the nation.

Citing high-profile congressional freshmen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, Hardy noted that women are beginning to defeat “well-known and seemingly well-liked incumbents.

"Whether it will happen in Vermont, I don’t know,” she continued. “I don’t think there’s the same sense of demographic urgency here.”

Voters don’t seem to feel much urgency at all. As women and minorities flood state legislatures and congressional seats around the country, identity politics has seemed to have little sway in Vermont.

“Vermonters don’t really care,” said former state adjutant general Martha Rainville. “The issues are more important to Vermonters than who the person is.”

She knows from experience. In 2006, the year Welch won his congressional seat, Rainville was his Republican opponent. In a state with a distinctly liberal bent, she garnered nearly 45 percent of the vote. To date, she is the woman who has come closest to representing Vermont in Congress.

Even so, if a woman does get there in the near future, she is likely to be a Democrat. Rainville admitted that a Republican running for Congress in Vermont would face “an uphill climb.” According to the Cook Partisan Voting Index, it’s the second-most Democratic-leaning state in the nation.

Then-Republican House candidate Martha Rainville (left), campaigning door-to-door in 2006 in Burlington, Vt. AP Photo/Alden Pellett

But even in years that might have presented opportunities for Democratic women, the party’s favored candidates have been men who already enjoyed statewide celebrity.

This is apparent in the rise of Vermont’s current representatives. In 1990, Dolores Sandoval was the Democratic nominee for the state’s House seat. Powerful Democrats, including then-gubernatorial candidate Welch, endorsed the independent Sanders over Sandoval. Sanders won the seat with 56 percent of the vote to his Republican opponent’s 40 percent, while Sandoval came in a distant third with 3 percent.

The last time an incumbent retired, the Democratic primary for Senate did not include a single woman, and Sanders was easily elected. Welch, then president pro tempore in the state Senate, ran for his House seat without any primary opponent at all.

“He was very popular among the Democrats,” said Deb Markowitz, former Vermont secretary of state. “Sometimes there’d be quiet conversations among people who were thinking about running, and ultimately, he was the candidate. … I have to say, he’s served Vermont very well.”

In states that have powerful Democratic parties, sometimes talented women have a hard time breaking into that long-standing seniority among men who have been serving for a long time,” said Julie McClain Downey, senior director of campaign communications at EMILY’s List, which helps to elect women who support abortion rights.

Still, plenty of women are gearing up to run for statewide office. While Vermont Democrats murmur about the possibility of an open congressional seat in the next few years, they’re much more eager to go after the governor’s office, currently held by Republican Phil Scott. Vermont is one of only two states with two-year gubernatorial terms, leaving Scott vulnerable again in 2020.

“We are laser-focused on the governorship, especially if the governor decides to retire,” Downey said.

One Vermont political insider named several women who are talked about as potential candidates, among them, state House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and former state Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe. Markowitz could be in as well.

“If the timing is right, I certainly would consider running for one of the congressional seats,” Markowitz said. “I’m particularly interested in the Senate … but again, I have to wait and see.”

Despite Vermont’s many promising female politicians, the pattern of electing male Democrats may continue. Some see the Senate as a natural next step for Welch. Should he take it, he would continue a long tradition. Although Leahy defeated a congressman to win his Senate seat in 1975, the last four men to hold Sanders’s seat were elected directly from the House.

If a woman wants to win next time, she’ll likely need to be known among voters the way those House members were known. That’s where the quirks of Vermont politics may be in her favor.

“Vermont is a small place,” Markowitz said. “For women in Vermont, it almost makes it easier to run, because it’s not a big media race. It’s a running-around-the-state, shaking-hands, talking-and-listening kind of race. I think that works better for a lot of women. Women get into politics to make a difference in our communities. That’s the big motivator that drives women to be successful.”

×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login