The Bernie Dilemma

National Democrats Embrace Sanders Faster Than Vermont Brethren

Posted May 9, 2005 at 6:39pm

Rep. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) looming Senate candidacy may complicate the relationship between national and Green Mountain State Democrats.

Initially it seemed Democrats would quickly back the self-described socialist when Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) announced last month that he would not seek re-election next year. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) praised Sanders immediately after Jeffords’ announcement.

But recent comments from state party Chairman Peter Mallary have forced national Democrats to tone down their pro-Sanders talk.

Even so, many Democrats privately say their party will eventually support the outspoken eight-term Independent.

“Everyone is trying to play to their base and everyone is trying to cover their bases,” said one Democratic operative, who did not want to be named. “The Democratic Party in Vermont would not be doing its due diligence if it came right out and did what it ultimately will do. It’s all a game.”

Mallary maintains that he simply is doing his job and trying to hear everyone out rather than being coy.

“This is an ongoing conversation,” Mallary said, adding there are many Vermont Democrats who would support Sanders and many who feel the party should field its own candidate.

“The process that is going on now is appropriate and I’m not sure where it’s going to land,” he said.

Some Vermont Democrats remember Sanders’ rise to power, in which he defeated a Democratic incumbent to become mayor of Burlington, and blame him for stoking the Progressive Party at their expense.

Left-leaning candidates in Vermont have lost several statewide contests because a Democrat and Progressive split the vote, allowing a Republican to win.

Nonetheless, the operative said the beating the party took in those races taught Democrats that waging three-way battles is a losing proposition and should be avoided.

“The old-line Democrats in Vermont may not love Bernie but they’re also not politically suicidal,” the operative said. “He’s not a Democrat but he represents the best chance for the Democratic Caucus to hold the seat.”

Democrats really cannot argue with Sanders’ voting record.

According to Congressional Quarterly, Sanders, who caucuses with House Democrats, voted with the party 98 percent of the time last year. His lowest party unity percentage in the past five years was 95 percent in 2003.

Many Democrats say Sanders is not the real issue, that the other 2006 races in Vermont are really what’s at stake.

“There’s a little bit of a mating dance going on,” another knowledgeable Democrat said. “No Democrat is going to run for the Senate. … Democrats [just] want to make sure they are not going to face a Progressive third-party candidate for [Sanders’] House” seat, the source said. “They want to meet and talk and figure this out.”

One state party official seemed to back up that theory.

“This a multi-faceted conversation,” said Vermont Democratic Executive Director Jon Copans. “It doesn’t just stop with the U.S. Senate race, you have to think about other places on the ticket. It’s in the best interest of the Sanders campaign for there to be unity on the ticket below him and for governor and lieutenant governor. It doesn’t play to his advantage to have [Democrats and Progressives] beating up each other.

“My concern is electing Democrats or Democratic votes in 2006,” Copans said.

Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ chief of staff, said he believes the Democrats will ultimately support Sanders.

“There are a lot of discussions going on right now,” he said. “We’re going to have the overwhelming support of Democrats, both rank-and-file and officeholders and officials. We all share the common interest of making sure this seat does not go to the Republicans and I think it’s going to be fine.”

Among the discussions occurring are everything from figuring out ways to get Democrats and Progressives to agree to a détente to deciding how a Democratic-backed Sanders campaign would factor into the party’s overall strategy. For example, would Sanders be part of the coordinated campaign in which candidates of the same party pay into a political organization so as to share resources?

But until those details are worked out, the national party will likely hold back.

Like Schumer and Reid, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, a former Vermont governor, uttered favorable comments about Sanders immediately following Jeffords’ retirement announcement. But his committee, like the DSCC, has refrained from outwardly endorsing Sanders.

The DSCC does not officially endorse anyone before the general election season while the DNC says it is waiting on Mallary and company.

“The DNC is not going to support a candidate until we know who’s in the race,” spokeswoman Laura Gross said. “It’s really up to the state party.”

Despite having cordial relationships with fellow Vermonters Dean and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D), it looks as if Sanders will have to wait a little while before the party throws its arms around him.

Leahy “has discussed the upcoming Senate vacancy with Congressman Sanders and with party leaders and others in Vermont, and I’m sure there will be many more such discussions,” said Leahy spokesman David Carle.