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Vermont's balance of power

By Christian Avard & Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

VERMONT'S NEW POWER TRIO: U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (left) with Congressman-elect Peter Welch (center) and Senator-elect Bernie Sanders (right) at the Democratic Party victory celebration in Burlington. Photo by Christian Avard.

Posted November 10, 2006

It was a good night, by and large, to be a Democrat, or an independent who votes Democratic in Vermont.

From legislative races to the race for U.S. Senate, Democrats and their allies made inroads against their Republican counterparts. But, the GOP held their own in some key races.

Shortly after the polls closed at 7 p.m., Rep. Bernie Sanders, an independent, was projected to be the winner by CNN — the first race called in the country. The congressional race was projected to go for state Sen. Peter Welch shortly afterward; even he didn’t officially declare victory until after 10 p.m.

Sanders will join U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a high-ranking Democrat, in the upper chamber. At press time, it was unclear if the balance of power in the Senate would match that of the House, which will be controlled by Democrats.

A House ally of Sanders, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, won his race against incumbent Republican Mike Dewine. Brown is a progressive Democrat who has spoken out fiercely against what he calls unfair trade policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement. Similarly, Democrat John Tester appeared to have a narrow lead against Republican Conrad Burns. Tester, too, is a liberal Democrat and leader of the state Senate who has won in Republican areas of Montana by talking about economic issues.

Republicans did hold on to two of the four top statewide seats — governor and lieutenant governor. The race for auditor, which saw incumbent Republican Randy Brock facing a strong challenge from Democrat Tom Salmon, Jr., and Progressive Martha Abbott, was too close to call at press time, though Brock did hold a narrow lead. Abbott garnered roughly 9 percent of the vote, meaning that the Progressive Party will maintain its major party status under election law.

Republican Gov. Jim Douglas told supporters in Montpelier that his 56-41 victory over Democrat Scudder Parker was confirmation that Vermonters endorse his “agenda of affordability” and that it was a mandate for him to take those policies into the next legislative session.

Douglas was joined in victory by his “co-pilot” Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, who bested Democrat Matt Dunne along with Progressive Marvin Malek. Dubie won, again, by a margin wide enough that it will not need to go to the Legislature. In Vermont, if a candidate for lieutenant governor does not get more than 50 percent of the popular vote, the Legislature gets to make the choice.

House Speaker Gaye Symington, D-Jericho, said the governor may want to pay attention to Democratic gains in the Legislature, especially since some of the items he touted as accomplishments during the campaign — Catamount Health for example — were Democratic initiatives and she said they had to “drag the governor along with us.”

“I think it would be wise for the governor to pay attention to what happened in the House, and to realize that he’s going to have to work in a bipartisan manner to accomplish things for Vermonters,” Symington said.

At press time, it was unclear if the Democrats had achieved a veto-proof majority in the House, but were within a seat or two of achieving that level. To do so, the Republicans would have to fall to 50 seats out of 150.

At least one Progressive lost, incumbent Winston Dowland, in the Northeast Kingdom, to Republican newcomer Scott Wheeler — one of three seats the GOP picked up. Other Progressives appeared to hold their seats. The Progressives did pick up a new seat in the Caledonia-Orange district by Susan Davis. They ran strong candidates throughout the state, but as the party’s candidate for auditor Martha Abbott noted, it was a tough year for Progressives running when there was such a focus to turn out Democrats.

Along with nearing a veto-proof majority in the House, Democrats were able to pick up seats in the state Senate, too. They picked up an open seat in Bennington County, the one held by Mark Shepard, who ran for his party’s bid to be the House candidate. They also appeared to maintain their seats elsewhere, which would give them a 23-7 majority.

They also picked up a seat in Rutland County, with Bill Carris. Sen. Wendy Wilton, along with a seatmate Kevin Mullin, embarked on an affordability tour earlier this year that came under fire from some lawmakers as being a partisan ploy. It appears that Republicans Hull Maynard and Mullin were reelected.

Chittenden County Democrats held on to their five Senate seats, with the lone Republican incumbent Diane Snelling also holding her seat. Former Lt. Gov. Doug Racine was the top vote getter.

House Democrats lost a few seats including one in Berlin that went to former Vermont Secretary of Labor Pat McDonald, and the Royalton/Tunbridge seat held by Rosemary “Rozo” McLaughlin, who passed away after a battle with cancer just a week before the election.

Despite the Democratic gains, the GOP did see some silver linings, especially the reelection of Douglas to a third term, despite a strong campaign waged by Parker.

“They feel very confident that he will do very well for Vermont and are comfortable with him,” said GOP Chairman Jim Barnett. “But, with someone on the down ticket race who is not particularly well known, to that degree the political environment has more influence, if you end up in a situation like this year’s political environment, you’re going to lose as a Republican.”

Barnett said Brock faced a tough challenge by Salmon, the son of a former governor.
“Despite all of the suffering nationally by Republicans, it should mean something in Vermont that we were able to hold two major offices in Vermont. It’s quite an accomplishment,” said Barnett.

U.S. Senate

For months, poll after poll showed Rep. Bernie Sanders up by more than 20 percent over his chief rival, Republican Rich Tarrant, and that is what played out. It was the first race called in the country, with Sanders ahead by a 65-32 margin at press time.

Tarrant, a self-made millionaire who has spent more than $6 million of his own money since launching his campaign more than a year ago, is alleged to have spent more per vote than any U.S. Senate candidate in U.S. history.

Sanders, an eight-term congressman, is a long-time icon of progressives who built a substantial grassroots base along with the help in this election of the Democrats. He nearly matched Tarrant’s self-funding by raising more than $5 million in smaller contributions from people around the country, including nearly 8,000 in Vermont.

Sanders started his day voting in Burlington, and then ended up at the Wyndham Hotel, rallying with state Democrats for the first time ever. Usually, Sanders holds his own election night rallies, and is often joined by members of the Progressive Party. Many longtime progressives were shoulder to shoulder with Democrats in the victory room.

For Sanders, his bid for the Senate is about an attempt to end the GOP’s grip on power in Washington.

“I think that the core issue not only in Vermont, but across the country as a whole, is whether we are going to continue with one-party rule and right-wing government,” said Sanders.

For Tarrant, the issue was about who could be the most effective in Washington. As a Republican, even though he says he disagrees with some of the current GOP policies, Tarrant believes he could make change from within the party.

In his concession speech, Tarrant echoed two main themes. The first was a message to the young people who worked on his campaign, some of whom were not old enough to vote, that they should not give up on the democratic process and become disenchanted just because their candidate didn’t win.

Second, he said that just because the campaign was over shouldn’t mean that his backers should stop thinking about the troops, or finding ways to get them out of Iraq and back on U.S. soil.

“This election, more than anything else, was about the war in Iraq. We have to keep the war in mind, we have to constantly think of the Vermonters and Americans who have lost their lives,” said Tarrant. “They’ve done a good job, they’ve won, they’ve won that war, but a civil war is inevitable, and we have to get them out of there and keep them in our prayers and thoughts.”

Tarrant thanked his supporters for what he called “one of the greatest experiences of his life.”

Tarrant drew criticism for a slew of TV and radio ads that began before the Republican primary on Sept. 12 questioning Sanders’ votes on several issues — Amber Alert, victim’s rights, and drug kingpins.

For Sanders, he believes that he and others, like Democrat Sherrod Brown in Ohio, will bring issues of trade policies to the fore as senators — a growing issue related to the loss of well-paying, middle-class jobs.

“What we’re beginning to see is that progressive Democrats are starting to speak about class issues and pocketbook issues that they weren’t speaking about years ago and beginning, just beginning, to see that resonate with voters. But, clearly we have a long way to go.”

He echoed that theme in his victory speech.

“Tonight it may be the end of a campaign but it is the beginning of something more important. It is the beginning of a grassroots movement all over America. I believe that destiny has suggested that this small state of Vermont is in fact is going to lead America in a very different direction,” said Sanders. “And the time is also going to come when all over America people are going to say, ‘Thank you, Vermont.’”

U.S. House

She started out as the odds-on favorite, but Republican Martha Rainville, the state’s former adjutant general, was unable to gain enough traction in a year where it was not a help to have an “R” next to your name.

Nationally, Vermont’s campaign for the open seat in Congress was seen as the most positive in a year of negative ads.

In the end, it was Democrat Peter Welch who came out on top, 53-44, and will join Leahy and Sanders in Washington as a member of the state’s congressional delegation.

“We’ve received compliments across this state for running a positive issues oriented campaign. Because we knew Vermonters demanded it, they wanted it, and once again Vermont is setting a standard about how political debate should occur on very tough issues,” Welch told an enthusiastic throng of voters election night.

Rainville conceded around 10 p.m.

Welch is the first Democrat to be elected to the House of Representatives from Vermont since 1958 when a Democrat was elected for a single, two-year term before being defeated by Republican Bob Stafford.

Welch said he and Rainville had a brief discussion and he thanked her for running a clean campaign.

Both ran an issues-oriented campaign, but on key issues like the war in Iraq, Welch struck out early with a clear position on getting troops out of Iraq and calling for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to be fired.

Rainville, however, while admitting mistakes being made in the execution of the war, didn’t call for pulling troops out of the region until nearly the last week of the campaign.

Both worked hard to paint themselves as the reformer in the race — the one who can clean up Washington and bring some Vermont values to bear.

Rainville, who served nine years as the state’s adjutant general, tugged heavily on the uniform of her military career to inform voters of her values and her ability to stand up to leaders. The word “independent” rather than “Republican” was most often used in her ads, many of which were paid for by the Republican National Congressional Committee.

Welch, on the other hand, a political figure in Vermont off and on for more than two decades, touts the need for Democratic leadership in Washington to end “one-party rule,” and says his record of working with Democrats and Republicans will be an asset in his effort to bridge the partisan divide.

Rainville, like many Republicans, ran away from Washington and the GOP in general. However, as of Oct. 24, her campaign had received nearly $750,000 in funding from the National Republican Congressional Committee, and tens of thousands of dollars in campaign cash from Speaker Dennis Hastert, Rep. Roy Blunt, R-MO (a close ally of disgraced Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas), and current majority leader Rep. John Boehner, R-OH. She also took money from Rep. Joe Barton, R-TX, an ardent disbeliever in global warming, an issue on which Rainville has won kudos from Greenpeace and others.

During an October debate, Rainville responded to the oft-repeated charge that she is not truly independent if being supported so heavily by the leaders she has said have “gone astray.”

However, the Welch campaign was able, like the Sanders campaign, to link in voters’ minds the Republicans running in Vermont with those in power nationally.

Welch will now enter the U.S. House with a Democratic leadership in control, which could bode well for the committee assignments he is handed.

Governor

In the race for governor, it came down to a question of leadership, and priorities, and in the end Vermonters decided to stick with the leader they’ve had, Republican Jim Douglas, rather than break in a new one.

For Democrat Scudder Parker — a candidate who at times was down by more than 25 points in the polls — finishing within striking distance sent a message.

Parker’s main critique of Douglas was on energy policy, but he extrapolated from there to include jobs programs, affordable housing, property taxes, government efficiency, and more.

Douglas, meanwhile, took his legislative program that he unveiled in January — the Affordability Agenda — and ran with that straight through election eve during an all-day Republican “prosperity tour.”

Douglas was joined by U.S. House candidate Rainville, U.S. Senate hopeful Tarrant, as well as Dubie and Brock.

Douglas told the Guardian he was upbeat about the tour, during which the group traveled the state in a 12-passenger van, hitting more than a half dozen diners, making calls into eight radio station call-in programs, and making 12 stops during the day.

Douglas, Dubie, and Brock were also together in Burlington’s Ward 5, home to former governors Howard Dean and Madeleine Kunin greeting voters at the polls.

On Election Day, Douglas started in his hometown in Middlebury and then traveled the state, ending up at the Capital Plaza in Montpelier.

Parker cast ballots in his hometown of Middlesex with U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy to start his day, ending up at the Wyndham Hotel in Burlington.

Parker conceded by 11 p.m., telling a crowd of supporters that they should be thankful that their hard work over the past three election cycles is paying off with gains in the House and Senate in Montpelier.

“It has been hard work and has been a commitment to knocking on doors and changing minds and listening to the people of the state of Vermont,” said Parker.

That has led to what he called “creative leadership” in the Legislature thanks to the election of Democrats.

Lt. Governor

Brian Dubie appeared to be reelected with enough support to, once again, keep his race from going to the Legislature for a final decision.

Democrat Matt Dunne anchored his candidacy on the belief that for $61,000 a year, a lieutenant governor — who technically only has to preside over the Senate when it is in session and stand in for the governor when he’s incapacitated or out-of-state — should work full-time.

That message, however, wasn’t enough.

“Beating the incumbents is always difficult — we knew that going into this, particularly with a race that is not always given a lot of attention to — so we felt like we succeeded in bringing these issues to the table,” Dunne said. “I don’t back away from difficult challenges.

“Again, this was a race that offered an opportunity to do politics a little different. We tried service politics and it worked really well. We brought in hundreds of people that were not really interested in politics to understand that politics might have a way to make a difference in achieving the goals that they have.”

The “service politics” Dunne was referring to connected campaign volunteers to local service agencies and projects.

Progressive Marvin Malek also believed that the lieutenant governor, as an elected, statewide leader, should act like a leader and not just fill in for the governor.

Dubie countered that he is working, even if he’s not holding regular office hours. Given his margin of victory, it certainly seemed as if Vermonters think so, too.

“The fact is that I’ve never worked harder at anything in my life than being Vermont’s lieutenant governor, and there isn’t a day that doesn’t go by that I’m not working on something for the people of Vermont,” said Dubie.

Dubie adds that aside from his duties presiding over the Senate while it is in session, that he is also the chairman of the governor’s special commissions on aging and on homeland security. He has also led trade delegations to Quebec and Cuba.

Malek said he was appalled by the Douglas and Dubie approach to solving problems, which he equated to a “Don’t worry, be happy, and we’ll cut your taxes a little bit” attitude.