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A Military Coup in Vermont House Race?

GOP Thinks Adjutant General Could Steal Sanders’ Seat in 2006

Republicans like their chances of capturing Vermont’s lone House seat in next year’s open contest — but their preferred candidate is not rushing to jump-start her campaign.

Nonetheless, Democrats could be hindered in their efforts to win the seat by the presence of a left-leaning, third-party candidate.

Maj. Gen. Martha Rainville (R), adjutant general of the state’s National Guard, opened an exploratory committee in mid-September, and reported raising just $7,350 — $4,000 of which she loaned her campaign — in roughly two weeks.

The sole Democratic candidate, state Senate President Pro Tem Peter Welch, raised $270,000 in the quarter ending Sept. 30, which was his first of active fundraising.

National Republicans, who are high on Rainville’s candidacy, say they are unconcerned.

“It’s irrelevant,” said Ed Patru, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “She’s not a declared candidate yet. She has the capacity to raise money. Once she gets into this race, it will automatically be at the top of our list of open seat races.”

Patru insists Republicans are not counting on a Progressive candidate playing a “spoiler” role to propel Rainville to victory either.

“She is a popular enough of a figure and strong enough of a candidate that even in a two-way race, this is a legitimate race,” Patru said. “With the added factor of a third-party candidate, things start to get very complicated for the Democrats.”

In recent local and statewide elections in the Green Mountain State, Democratic candidates have seen their ambitions thwarted by competition from the Vermont Progressive Party. In several contests a Democrat and Progressive split the liberal vote, allowing a Republican to win.

David Zuckerman, an organic farmer and state Representative, is exploring a House run on the Progressive ticket.

Despite the problems Zuckerman’s presence in the race to replace Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would present for the Democrats, party leaders say they are not worried.

“I am not concerned about that in this particular race,” said John Copans, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party.

Perhaps that is because some political observers do not think Zuckerman will pull the trigger.

“My sense is that Zuckerman probably will not get into the race,” said Eric Davis, a political science professor at Middlebury College in Vermont. “I think he’s using his threat to run to get things [Progressives] want from Democrats in the state Legislature.”

Zuckerman did not return phone calls before press time Monday.

Democrats and Sanders have made no secret of their desire to keep the seat out the hands of the GOP and discussions have been ongoing for months about how to prevent Progressives and Democrats from beating each other up.

National Democrats have ensured that a no-name Democrat runs against Sanders in the state’s open-seat Senate race next year, and are hoping for the same cooperation from Progressives in the House contest.

Sanders is not a Progressive Party member.

While the Progressive Party may not be sold on Welch, its leaders understand that their party’s feud with the Democrats has not helped their cause.

“There are many considerations and one of them is not wanting to elect someone who will work on advancing the right-wing agenda,” Progressive Party Chairwoman Martha Abbott said about whether Progressives will play in the House race.

Abbott said that even if Zuckerman forgoes the race, other Progressives have expressed an interest.

Abbott said a lot of factors will go into her party’s decision, including who the Republican candidate is.

If it is Rainville, “it is not clear what her politics are,” Abbott said. “She almost ran as a Democrat … it is not clear that she is really more conservative than Peter Welch. We have to decide if we want to put our resources into a run for Congress or if we want to focus on our legislative races and statewide races.”

Rainville’s term with the National Guard does not expire until February 2007 and she has not set a timetable for making a decision about the House race, but Republicans are sure she will run.

“I have no reason to believe she will not ultimately be a candidate but at the moment she is still looking at the race and most of her time is still spent on her day job,” said Jim Barnett, chairman of the Vermont Republican Party.

In the meantime, Welch has enjoyed a good first quarter as a candidate.

Not only did he raise a lot of money but his main Democratic competition, former state Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, recently dropped out of the race.

National Democrats made no secret that Welch was their chosen candidate. For example, before Shumlin dropped his bid last month, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) traveled to Vermont to help Welch raise money.

“It’s always good to avoid a primary and to have a candidate that the party is united behind,” Sarah Feinberg, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Committee, said of the development.

For now, Davis said he has to give the advantage to Welch.

“In a two-way, I think Welch has the advantage,” Davis said.

However, if Zuckerman or another strong Progressive enters the field, all bets are off, he said.

“In a three-way race the Republican would probably come in first with about 40 percent of the vote,” Davis predicted.

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