This story was updated at 12:35 p.m.
MONTPELIER — Congressman Peter Welch said Friday he will seek re-election to the U.S. House in 2016, ending speculation that he might instead return to Vermont and run for governor.
Welch, a Democrat, openly flirted with the notion of running for governor after Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin announced earlier this month he would not run for a fourth, two-year. But after two weeks of consideration, Welch said Friday that he can best serve Vermonters in Congress and would not run for the “distinct honor” of being governor.
“Congress these days is not highly regarded by the American people, but strange as it may seem, I really continue to love my job,” Welch told reporters on a conference call from Washington, D.C., Friday morning. “I’ve been here in the Tea Party Congress where it’s much tougher going, for sure, but where I’ve been able … to do things that have been a major benefit to Vermont.”
Welch, 68, has a long track record as a legislator. He served two stints in the Senate, from 1981 to 1989, and from 2001 to 2006. His time in the Vermont Senate included several terms as Senate President Pro Tem. He also sought the governorship in 1990, losing to former Republican Gov. Richard Snelling.
The fifth-term congressman touted his ability to work across the political aisle as his main reason for seeking re-election to the House. He has been effective in pushing energy efficiency initiatives alongside some Republican colleagues. He also noted major legislation signed into law during his tenure, including the federal stimulus package stemming from the Great Recession and the Affordable Care Act.
“I am beginning to see signs of change here in Congress among more of my Democratic colleagues and more of my Republican colleagues that we’ve got to get things done. We need problem solvers here. We need people that have credibility,” Welch said. “I’m in a position to do that. I’m in a position to do that because Vermonters have elected me four times to represent them in Congress. That’s a big commitment.”
Welch said he received support from Vermonters, both for seeking re-election to Congress and running for governor. Among those that reached out to him, Welch said half urged him to stay in Congress and half encouraged him to return to Vermont. Those that wanted him to run for governor cited “my bipartisan, problem-solving and practical, civil approach would be something that would be helpful,” Welch said.
The decision, he said, was devoid of politics and based on personal factors. He said he conducted no polling as he considered his future.
“I’m confident that I’m in a good place with voters,” he said. “I basically just had to make my own gut check.”
The draw of returning to Vermont is strong, Welch said, but advocating for Vermonters in Washington ultimately won.
“In all candor, I was torn by it,” he said. “I come home every week, but, wouldn’t it be better to be home every night? That was the real challenge to me. It’s just so much nicer to be in Vermont than it is in Washington. I just had to work through that, but there wasn’t, like, a tipping point or a moment.”
Welch’s decision is likely to unfreeze the decision-making process of several top-tier Democratic candidates for governor. House Speaker Shap Smith and former state senator and gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne had both said they would defer to Welch if he ran for governor. A spirited Democratic Party primary is now likely.
Smith said Friday he has not yet determined his own future.
“I am seriously considering running for governor and I expect to make a decision and an announcement soon,” he said. “I had been very clear that I wasn’t going to run against Congressman Welch in a primary, so it does make things clearer and I do expected to make a decision soon whether I will run in 2016.”
Smith said he has received “a lot of encouragement from the people I’ve talked to” to jump into the race. He said the conversation with his family is ongoing.
“I’m still talking with my family about what it will be like for me and for the family to be in the middle of a campaign. Those conversations have been good, but I think it’s important for them and for me to really understand what it means to run for governor over the next 14 months.”
In perhaps a bit of foreshadowing, he said an announcement will probably come in the form of an event, not a press release.
Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who is also considering a run, had said Welch’s decision would have no impact on his decision.
Welch said he has no plans to back a candidate any time soon.
“I don’t even know who’s going to run,” he said. “This is going to unfold and there’s a lot of good people who are contemplating the race. Let’s see what happens,” he said.