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Vermont’s Starting Gait

Pols Eye Sanders’ Seat But Wait for Douglas

Politicians of all party affiliations are anticipating the first open contest for the Green Mountain State’s lone House seat in 16 years. But all are waiting on two key players to make their moves.

The first is considered inevitable — that Rep. Bernie Sanders (I) will surrender his post to seek the state’s open Senate seat next year.

The other is less certain.

What many Democrats and Republicans alike do hinges mainly on what Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas (R) decides his next play is.

When Sen. Jim Jeffords (I) reversed course last week and announced that he would not seek a fourth term in 2006 after all, Republicans turned to Douglas as their preferred candidate to succeed him.

Sanders has made no secret of his ambition to ascend to the Senate but Douglas, who lost to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) in 1992, declined to run as long as his old friend Jeffords was in the race.

With the board now cleared, Republican leaders hope Douglas will join the Senate contest.

Most political watchers assume Douglas will not make a decision before the state Legislature adjourns, probably in June.

A number of top-tier House candidates could be lured into an open gubernatorial race if Douglas opts to give up that post to seek the Senate seat.

That decision could also free up the lieutenant governor’s spot.

All statewide offices are elected biennially in Vermont.

“Part of this depends on what Jim Douglas decides to do in regards to the Senate race,” said Eric Davis, a political science professor at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Davis believes that some of the most formidable would-be House candidates, such as state Senate President Peter Welch on the Democratic side or Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie on the Republican slate, may be more interested in the governor’s mansion.

“Douglas has to make up his mind by Labor Day at the latest and preferably June,” Davis said. “He has to leave time for others to get organized if he doesn’t go.”

The Democratic field “will be a complete free-for-all” if Douglas decides to stay put as governor, a knowledgeable Democratic strategist said.

Possible contenders include Welch; state Attorney General William Sorrell; former Lt. Gov. Doug Racine; former state Senate President Peter Shumlin; Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle; state Sen. Matt Dunne; state Sen. Ed Flanagan; and Jan Backus, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor last year, Democratic sources say. Backus was the Democratic nominee against Jeffords — who was then a Republican — in 1994. She lost the 2000 Democratic Senate primary to Flanagan, who was then the state auditor.

Welch, Racine and a few others could be pulled away for an open gubernatorial race.

“If Douglas runs for the Senate, the Democratic primary will be far less crowded, probably just two or three people,” the source predicted.

The list is smaller on the Republican side but still fairly long.

“I think you need to include all the names of Republicans who are considering a Senate bid, except for the governor, and then it depends on the governor’s decision,” Vermont GOP President Jim Barnett said.

That list includes Dubie, state Auditor Randy Brock, IDX Systems Corp. Chairman Richard Tarrant, failed 2004 Senate nominee Jack McMullen and current Senate candidate Greg Parke, was drubbed by Sanders in the House race last year.

“I think that’s one of the good things we’ve been able to accomplish over the last couple of years; we’ve been able to put together a good bench,” Barnett said. “We have three statewide-elected Republicans right now, which is the most in a generation.”

Another name that gets kicked around is that of Maj. Gen. Martha Rainville, who heads up the Vermont National Guard.

No one is exactly sure which party she would represent or which office she may seek, but one Republican operative hopes she would run as a Republican.

“She’s staying above the fray but has indicated that she has an interest in public office,” the operative said. “She’s not going to lead the National Guard forever. I think she would make a good Republican.”

Republicans are hopeful that they could win Sanders’ seat without the self-described socialist in it.

“It looks like it will be a very competitive race, especially if there’s a very competitive Senate race going on,” said Carl Forti, the National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman.

Davis said it is far too early to handicap any hypothetical matchup but he did say that Democrats — with whom Sanders aligns himself in the House — have a good shot at keeping it.

“Generically, a Democrat would be favored,” he said.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) bested President Bush by 20 points in the November presidential election in Vermont.

While many consider Vermont a blue, or Democratic, state, the Progressive Party has a decent following and could field a House candidate who may serve as a Democratic spoiler, both Democrats and Republicans warn.

Anthony Pollina ran for lieutenant governor under the party’s banner in 2002 and captured 25 percent of the vote, helping elect a Republican.

Progressives hold six seats in the state House but do not have enough strong candidates to be major players in all the statewide races that could be competitive next year, a Democratic source said. Therefore, their significance depends on which races they target.

Clavelle could be the right Democrat to negate a Progressive’s influence, another Democratic operative said.

Clavelle has served as mayor of Burlington on and off since Sanders left the post in 1989. He has been elected as both a Progressive and a Democrat. When he ran unsuccessfully for governor last year, he was a hybrid candidate who represented both parties, though he was officially the Democratic nominee, the source said.

“Clavelle has two strengths,” the source said. Burlington supplies a big chunk of primary voters and last time he ran as a “fusion candidate, so he gets both parties to support him.”

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