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GOP Seeks ’06 Vengeance on Jeffords

Republicans in 2006 will get their first chance to seek retribution against the man who left their fold to became an Independent, giving control of the Senate back to the Democrats in 2001.

While national Republicans would like nothing more than to send Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) packing, they likely face long odds in unseating the three-term Senator, political observers of both parties agree.

“It certainly would be an uphill battle,” said Vermont Republican Party Chairman Jim Barnett. “Traditionally, he’s a strong candidate, he has more money now than he ever had. That being said, no one is unbeatable; with a well-funded challenger running a strong campaign, anything is possible.”

A Vermont Democratic operative, who did not want to be identified, was more blunt.

“Republicans can target him all they want, they’re not going to beat the guy,” the source said. “He’s a very popular leader.”

Regardless of the prognosis, Republicans across the country will be champing at the bit to help topple Jeffords, a national Republican operative who did not want to be named insisted.

“Grassroots activists across the country will be paying attention to this race because of the kind of symbolism Jeffords holds,” the operative said, adding that as a result, the eventual Republican challenger should have no trouble raising money.

Democratic strategists agree that as long as Jeffords seeks a fourth term in 2006, as he has said he will, their party will give the 70-year-old lawmaker who caucuses with them a pass.

The Republican operative said Vermont should be viewed as a real pick-up opportunity for the GOP.

“Vermont has elected a Republican governor twice [in the past two cycles] so Republicans know they can win. The question is, which Republican would want to take on the challenge?” the source asked.

At this point, there is “no aggressive recruitment yet” for a Republican challenger, but Barnett said conversations have begun.

Possible Republican candidates include Gov. Jim Douglas, Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, outgoing state House Speaker Walter Freed and Richard Tarrant, co-founder and board chairman of IDX Systems Corp., a Burlington-based information technology firm, who flirted with the idea of taking on Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) this year.

Douglas unsuccessfully challenged Leahy in 1992. Then the Vermont secretary of state, Douglas took 43 percent of the vote against Leahy despite being outspent more than 6-1.

“I imagine national pressure would be enormous for [Douglas] to get into that race,” the Democratic source said. “One can ask, who else do they have?”

The more interesting battle is the one Jeffords has said will not happen — the possible race for an open seat.

Jeffords recently told the Burlington Free Press that the GOP’s success in Senate races this year will not prompt him to retire.

“Oh no, nothing could be further from the truth,” Jeffords told the paper. “I enjoy a challenge. As long as I’m in a situation where I can help Vermont, I’m going to stick around.”

Nonetheless, speculation will not die that he might change his mind, in which case fellow independent, Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will likely be the first to throw his hat into the ring.

“If there is an open seat in 2006, we plan on running,” said Sanders spokesman Joel Barkin.

Barkin would not commit his boss to a head-to-head matchup with Jeffords, however.

While Sanders, a self-described Socialist, caucuses with Democrats in Congress, his relationship with Green Mountain State Democrats is less amicable, the Democratic operative said.

Sanders would not necessarily get a pass for several reasons, not the least of which is his stoking of the Progressive Party of Vermont, which largely wins support at the expense of Democrats.

While Democrats mostly give Sanders a bye in his re-election races for the state’s lone House seat, whether they would back his Senate run “could be very divisive within the Democratic base,” the Democratic source said.

The operative also warned national Democrats to look to the state party for its cue on such a question.

Beyond divided loyalties, Democrats also would be hard-pressed to clear the field for Sanders because open Senate seats are a rarity in Vermont. Jeffords was first elected in 1988, and Leahy first went to the Senate in 1974.

“These opportunities in Vermont don’t come along very often,” the Democratic operative said. “We would consider all of our options … We don’t want to be caught off-guard [if Jeffords retires]. There is plenty of talk at this point about potential Democratic candidates.”

Topping the list of Democratic dream candidates for many is failed presidential hopeful and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

“Dean would make a phenomenal U.S. Senator and be a great candidate,” the source said.

Dean, who is rumored to be interested in taking over the helm of the Democratic National Committee, is not biting yet.

“It’s way too early to be talking about that,” Dean spokeswoman Laura Gross said.

As to other potential Democratic candidates, some political watchers have mentioned Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle, who just lost the gubernatorial election to Douglas.

The Democratic operative would not speculate, saying: “Democrats have a pretty deep bench of potential candidates.”

An open Senate seat would likely throw Vermont politics into “chaos,” and the state’s top officeholders would likely play “musical chairs” as people seek to swap state offices for federal ones and anyone with higher political ambition coming out of the woodwork, Barnett predicted.

The state in 2006 could be in a situation where the governor’s mansion, solitary House seat and a Senate seat would all be up for grabs without incumbents at the same time, he said.

Of course, such scenarios could just be the whimsy of bored political operatives, as Jeffords has not said he will retire and is sitting on a campaign war chest of almost $2 million.

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