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Sanders Favored For Jeffords’ Seat

Politics in the Green Mountain State was turned on its head Wednesday when Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) revealed that he would step down at the end of the 109th Congress.

The 70-year-old Jeffords’ decision to retire, a persistent rumor over recent months that had been strongly denied by his office, could uncork long bottled-up political ambitions and leave open seats up and down the state ballot for the first time in 15 years.

Jeffords decision to leave the GOP and become an Independent in 2001 had a similar effect on the Senate, throwing control of the chamber to Democrats.

Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has long said that he would enter any open Senate contest, thereby putting the state’s lone House seat on the open market for the first time since he put a stranglehold on it with his initial victory in 1990. Sanders did nothing to dampen speculation that he will run for the seat in the aftermath of Jeffords’ announcement.

Through a spokeswoman, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said he would not make the race and instead continue to concentrate on his duties as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a post he won earlier this year.

Renewed Republican efforts to coax Gov. Jim Douglas into the Senate race — he previously said that he would not challenge Jeffords because the two are old friends — could put that biennially elected office on the block as well.

Vermont Republican Party Chairman Jim Barnett predicted that a game of “musical chairs” will break out with all the new political opportunities.

Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle (D), considered a strong candidate for several offices, said that Jeffords’ decision “will result in significant changes to the Vermont political landscape.”

Despite repeated assertions that he relished another election fight, Jeffords reversed course Wednesday afternoon at a brief news conference in Burlington and simultaneously sought to deflect rumors about his health.

“There have been questions about my health, and that is a factor as well. I am feeling the aches and pains that come when you reach 70. My memory fails me on occasion but [my wife] would probably argue this has been going on for the last 50 years,” he said, laughing.

Jeffords told Roll Call in February: “As far as everyone is concerned, they know I’m running.”

On Wednesday, Jeffords said, “There are even better reasons to step down … my wife, Liz, has put up with a lot over the years, and it is long past time I spent more time with her.”

He also acknowledged that his wife’s ongoing battle with cancer gave him pause.

Jeffords was showered with praise for his service from environmentalists, Senate colleagues and state politicians.

“Jim Jeffords is beloved by the people of Vermont, as well as by millions of Americans nationwide who came to know him through the courage and independence he showed in making the difficult decision to become an Independent,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said in a floor speech Wednesday. “Since then, Jim has also had a national following. He has never had more public support and popularity in Vermont than he does today.”

The Vermont Public Interest Research Group issued a statement saying, “We owe a deep debt of gratitude to Sen. Jeffords for all that he has done to stand up for the kind of common sense, quality of life issues that matter most to Vermonters.”

Jeffords temporarily put the Senate under Democratic control when he bolted the GOP in 2001, earning the ire of Republicans across the country who would have liked nothing more than to defeat him next year.

Nonetheless, Republican responses to his decision to retire focused on his service and the party’s chances of regaining the seat.

“There’s going to be a lot of conversations taking place over the next days and weeks,” Barnett said. “We have a great bench of very competent people, many of them would make excellent Senators, Congressman or governors.”

First on many Republicans’ lists is Douglas, though he may not want to give up the governor’s mansion. Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie and Richard Tarrant, co-founder of IDX Systems Corp., should also be considered as possibilities for either the Senate or House race, sources said.

“It’s certainly a great opportunity to pick up a seat,” said Brian Nick, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “We laid some groundwork to be prepared for a competitive race in Vermont. … So we’re not scrambling at this point. We’re in a good position to have a good candidate.”

Republican Greg Parke, who already entered the race, immediately seized on the news in an e-mail solicitation for donations.

Parke challenged Sanders last year, losing badly, and he will probably be shunted aside for a top-tier candidate this time.

The Democratic side is a little more complicated.

Sanders, a self-described socialist who caucuses with Democrats, likely would get a pass from Democrats as many concede privately that he would be the most formidable candidate looking at the race.

Democrats rarely field candidates against him in his at-large House seat, as he often votes with them, and he has handily won re-election with percentages as high as 69 percent.

Sanders said in a statement that he would not discuss his plans today as he wanted people to honor Jeffords, but he did say that his intentions “have been clear.”

For now, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is touting Vermont’s general preference for left-of-center candidates.

“The values of Vermont are solidly in sync with the Democratic Party, and this seat is not going to go Republican,” said DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.).

Leahy agreed that Democrats should be able to “hold” the seat.

“The state has changed a lot since I first ran for the Senate,” Leahy said in an interview. “It is going to be a lot easier to hold the seat today than it would have been back in those days.”

Nick said talk from Democrats about holding Jeffords’ seat prompts the question, will the DSCC back Sanders?

“I didn’t know Sanders is a Democrat, maybe they’ll come up with a Democrat,” Nick said. “Is this the death of the Democratic Party in Vermont?”

Most observers believe that Sanders will have the party’s backing and that other Democrats looking to move up likely will opt to run for his House seat or another statewide office.

A Democratic source said: “I think people will coalesce around Bernie, he is the strongest candidate statewide.”

Besides Clavelle, other Vermont Democrats to watch include state Attorney General William Sorrell, Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz and state Treasurer Jeb Spaulding as well as Peter Shumlin, the former state Senate president, and Maj. Gen. Martha Rainville, who heads up the Vermont National Guard.

“I’ll certainly consider the options,” Clavelle said, but he put off other talk of his future plans in deference to Jeffords.

Clavelle did stress that Democrats need to embrace like-minded candidates if they want to keep Republicans at bay.

“Those to the center and to the left need to find a way to work together or it is possible that Republicans could slip in.”

Mark Preston contributed to this report.

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