Sunday, October 08, 2006

Vermont U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

October 8, 2006
30 Days Until Election Day

Vermont U.S. Senate

Status: Democrat Open (retiring incumbent technically serves as an Independent but caucuses with Democrats)
2004 Presidential Result: Blue State (East)

Outlook: Likely Democrat (candidate likely to win is running as an Independent but will caucus with Democrats)

The Green Mountain State, a longtime bastion of Yankee Republicanism, which has moved sharply to the left in recent decades is likely to reelect a Republican Governor, choose between a Democrat and a Republican in a competitive race for the U.S. House of Representatives, and send to the U.S. Senate, a man who for his entire political career has embraced the label of socialist.

Vermont’s new U.S. Senator will end a very interesting six years in the history of that particular seat. In 2000, moderate to liberal Republican Jim Jeffords was easily reelected but in 2001, he left the party, temporarily giving control of the Senate to the Democrats. When Republicans won the body back in 2002, Jeffords was out of luck as far as once against being a committee chairman and some speculated that he would eventually run for Governor of his home state. Serving as an Independent, Jeffords has moved even further to the left over the past five years to the extent where he easily fits in ideologically along with Democrats. Despite the party switch, or perhaps because of it, Jeffords has remained fairly popular at home, but his health has started to take a toll over the past few years, and there have been whispers for some time that the Senator might be suffering from some sort of debilitating mental disease. In 2005, Jeffords announced he would not seek reelection and the stage was set for an open Senate race.

Democrats almost immediately turned to the candidacy of Congressman Bernie Sanders, a very liberal politician with the appearance of the wild-eyed unkempt college professor that he once was. Sanders was a perennial candidate for statewide offices in Vermont in the ‘70s and ‘80s running as either an Independent or under the banner of the Liberty Union Party but always fell short. He would go on to become elected Mayor of Burlington and then his big break came when he was elected to Congress in 1990. After some close races for reelection, Sanders eventually became entrenched in the seat as Vermont’s lone U.S. Representative and became a top vote getter. This is in spite of the fact that Sanders considers himself a democratic socialist. During his years in Congress, Sanders has typically been the institution’s lone Independent, but he has caucused with the Democrats. In fact, his voting record, while reliably to the left on almost any conceivable issue, really is not that out of whack with many other liberals currently serving in the House or Senate.

During the course of Sanders run for the U.S. Senate, national and state Democrats took steps to ensure that no other candidate would appear on the general election ballot under the party label, potentially costing the front-runner Sanders votes. While he would receive committee assignments by Democrats in the Senate, the Congressman has repeatedly refused to take any steps to formally join or identify with the party. Despite the high regard that Democrat leaders and the party grassroots in Vermont and around the country have for Sanders, he has been very critical of them over the years, saying such things as the party is under the control of corporations and not really that different from Republicans. Sanders bona fides as an independent insurgent did maybe take a bit of a hit when actively worked to force a liberal Independent candidate out of the race for the House seat he was leaving behind, in favor of the Democrat candidate for that office, in a move that some claimed might be part of a quid pro quo.

Needless to say, Republicans were not thrilled with the prospect of the socialist Sanders waltzing into a Senate seat and in 2005 attempted to find a candidate to stop him. Thoughts initially turned to the state’s popular moderate GOP Governor Jim Douglas, but after giving the race some though, he eventually decided to take the surer path of a run for reelection. The state’s Lt. Governor Brian Dubie then jumped into the race, and while he had a record of winning statewide office, he was seen as perhaps being too conservative to win a federal election in the land of Ben and Jerry, and Dubie as well eventually decided to once again run for his current job.

The GOP was initially quite bullish on the candidacy of the man who would be the party’s eventual nominee. Wealthy software company Rich Tarrant was touted as the kind of moderate Republican who might be able to win in the state and his political persona and Senatorial physical appearance were seen as being in stark contrast to Sanders. There was some belief that while Vermonters were willing to accept Sanders act as a left-wing crusader in the House, where there are 435 members, it might have been a tougher sell in the 100 member upper chamber, where Senators are traditionally expected to be more dignified and more open to bipartisan cooperation and careful deliberation. Republicans were also grateful that Tarrant’s personal wealth would make it possible for him to spend freely of his own money on the race and thus sparing national resources from having to contribute as heavily.

In spite of thee strengths of Tarrant, his campaign has never been able to truly take off and the citizens of Vermont, who have time after time elected Sanders on a statewide basis to Congress, seem perfectly willing to give him a promotion to the U.S. Senate. Some polls from earlier this year gave Sanders a massive lead of over 40 points over his eventual Republican opponent. A couple more recent polls still show Sanders well ahead but by lower margins. For example, a survey from American Research Group that showed a 21point lead for Sanders in July had turned into a 15-point lead in September.

As a low population state in which polls might be harder to rely on and with a wealthy opponent potentially laying down massive sums of money in the final days, those numbers should probably indicate that Sanders, while remaining the overwhelming favorite, is probably just a step or two below the categorization of being totally safe. Nonetheless, the politics of the state and the dynamics of this campaign year means that the people of Vermont were unlikely to send any Republican to Washington (unless perhaps it was Governor Douglas), especially not an erudite millionaire capitalist against Sanders, who is in effect very much like an incumbent in this race.

So, count on Sanders moving over from C-SPAN to C-SPAN 2 next year where he may particularly enjoy the concept of unlimited floor debate. For their part, Republicans might have to satisfy themselves by using his larger national stage as a fundraising mechanism to use against national Democrats.

Tarrant campaign link:

2006 Senate races predicted thus far: 16 D, 12 R
Post-election Senate balance of power predicted thus far: 43 D, 52 R