Democrats in Vermont Continue to Sit Pretty — for Now

Posted July 30, 2007 at 6:30pm

Vermont featured two open-seat Congressional races in the previous cycle, a rarity in a state with only three Members. But the Green Mountain State is not expected to see nearly as much action next year. [IMGCAP(1)]

Freshman Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) does not have to face voters again until 2012. Republicans have yet to recruit someone to challenge freshman Rep. Peter Welch (D) for the state’s sole House seat, and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D), who is up in 2010, has no plans to vacate his post any time soon.

Gov. Jim Douglas (R) conceded last week that unseating Welch is an uphill battle.

“I hope and assume we’ll have a candidate … I’d be honest with everybody,” he told The Burlington Free Press. “I think it’s a very challenging race for a Republican or any other contestant.”

Vermont certainly leans Democratic. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) bested President Bush by 20 points in the 2004 presidential election in Vermont.

Welch’s more immediate concern is liberal activists who want Congress to impeach Bush and who say they might find someone to run as an Independent to push that cause.

While many consider Vermont a Democratic state, the Progressive Party has a decent following and can field statewide candidates who become Democratic “spoilers.”

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

The Progressive Party does not have enough strong candidates to be a major player in all statewide races. Therefore, its significance depends on which races it targets, said Ian Carleton, chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party.

“The Progressive Party is only an issue for Democrats when it becomes an issue, which means for the most part, Democrats and Independents don’t run in the same races,” Carleton said.

“We were mostly on the same page in the last election,” he continued, noting that state and national Democrats backed Sanders while the Progressive Party declined to field its own candidate for Senate.

“There was really a great sense of solidarity,” Carleton said.

Robert Roper, executive director of the state Republican Party, said third-party candidacies do not automatically help the GOP.

“We have to be aware of their positions,” Roper said. “Who they help very much depends on the candidate who enters the race.

“You have to keep it in the back of your head but the real goal is to just recruit the strongest candidate we have for any given race,” Roper said.

At least two Republicans are eyeing the House race, but neither wants their names public yet, he said.

Last year’s nominee, Martha Rainville, will not be a candidate for anything next year because she accepted a two-year position with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. However, she could be a formidable statewide opponent in 2010 or later, Roper said.

The party’s strongest name is Douglas. First elected as governor in 2002, Douglas ran for Senate in 1992 but lost to Leahy.

He is expected to seek re-election, but he could run for Congress again someday, Roper said.

All statewide offices are elected biennially in Vermont.

Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, who almost sought the House seat Sanders surrendered to run for Senate, is another Republican who could jump into a Senate or House race down the road.

Republicans also are high on state Rep. Kurt Wright, who became the first Republican in 20 years to win the presidency of Burlington’s City Council in this year’s municipal elections.

Wright did not have to resign his state House seat as a result.

Former state Auditor Randy Brock is viewed as another Republican up-and-comer. He narrowly lost his post to Tom Salmon after a recount last year.

State House Minority Leader Steve Adams (R) and Assistant Minority Leader Patti Komline (R) may be interested in future Congressional bids, according to local Republicans.

“We are confident we are going to run some good races in 2008, and we’re looking forward to 2010 and beyond as we build our bench around a great core of people,” Roper said.

Democrats hold every statewide post in Vermont, save the governor’s mansion and the lieutenant governorship.

Treasurer Jeb Spaulding, Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, Attorney General Bill Sorrell and Salmon — whose father is former Gov. Tom Salmon — provide Democrats with a deep bench.

Also, former state Sen. Matt Dunne, who now works for Google, made a name for himself last year when he took 45 percent of the vote against Dubie in the lieutenant governor’s race.

State Speaker Gaye Symington, the first woman to hold that position, also could make a strong statewide candidate.

“Republicans are on a very small and sinking ship here in Vermont,” said Carleton, who himself could run for Congress down the road.

“There really doesn’t seem to be many up-and-coming Republicans,” he added.