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Vermont Races Could Shape House's Future

Rep. Bernie Sanders, an independent, is expected to win a Senate seat. His successor in Congress could help determine who controls that body.

September 12, 2006|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

BURLINGTON, Vt. — The Senate race in this small state looks to be less an election than an ascension.

Bernie Sanders -- Vermont's only U.S. representative and the lone independent in the House -- boasts a commanding lead over a Republican challenger who has blanketed the state with venomous advertising. Richard Tarrant, a software magnate who has never held elective office, has poured millions of dollars into a campaign that has brought him scant 34% support, according to the state's most recent polls.

"He's been in everyone's face. Vermont has never experienced this kind of never-ending barrage," said Peter Freyne, political columnist for an alternative weekly here called Seven Days. "It's the most expensive fight by fivefold we have ever seen in Vermont."

Yet as Vermont voters cast primary ballots today -- one of nine states plus the District of Columbia voting today -- Sanders appears hard to beat.

As an independent, Sanders would not help Democrats or Republicans in the tight struggle for Senate control. By contrast, the contest for Sanders' congressional seat is important to both major parties.

State Sen. Peter Welch is running unopposed in the Democratic primary; Maj. Gen. Martha Rainville, the former adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard, is the leading Republican candidate.

"This seat absolutely matters, in that control of the House is up for grabs," said Amy Walter, senior editor at the Cook Political Report in Washington.

Democrats must win 15 seats to gain a House majority.

Rainville "has a great profile, and name recognition that transcends partisanship," Walter said. "The problem is, she is running in an awful year. She is running into gale-force headwinds of presidential low approval, low approval for Congress and opposition to the war. She can't control any of those things. So the job of Peter Welch and the Democrats is to take that shine off her, and I think that will be a lot easier to do in this election year than it might be some other time."

With the steady deployment of Vermont Guard members to Iraq and Afghanistan, Rainville, 48, became a familiar face around the state.

In an interview in her campaign headquarters in South Burlington, she said, "I think Vermonters knew me as the adjutant general who cared about the soldiers and the families."

Still, she acknowledged that her military affiliation unsettled some voters.

"There is such a sensitivity in this state to the war," Rainville said.

"People bring it up, regardless of whether they are Republican, Democrat or independent. No one has been confrontational, but there is a curiosity to hear my perspective."

Although Rainville has vowed to run a clean campaign, Welch said he was braced for nasty ads from national Republican groups.

"You know what, I was married to the same woman for 28 years," said Welch, a 59-year-old widower whose campaign companion is his dog. "I've had the same law partner for over 30 years, with no written agreement, just a handshake. I'm pretty boring. But they will find stuff, and if they don't find it, they will make it up."

Vermonters do not register by political party. On primary day, voters are offered ballots from the Progressive, Liberty Union, Republican and Democratic parties. A voter chooses one and discards the three unused ballots.

Exit polls from 2004 showed the state with 27% self-identified Republicans, 41% independents and 32% self-identified Democrats and liberals, said University of Vermont political science professor Garrison Nelson.

Voters in the Green Mountain State regularly split their tickets -- voting overwhelmingly, for example, for Republican Gov. Jim Douglas in 2004 while Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) was virtually burying President Bush in the state's presidential count.

This time around, "Vermont is quirky enough to send a socialist to the Senate and a general to the House," Nelson said.

Sanders, 65, a former Burlington mayor, caucuses with Democrats but votes "however he pleases," according to campaign media director Paul Hortenstine.

Tarrant's televised assaults on Sanders have backfired, Nelson said. "It's as ugly a campaign as we have ever seen in Vermont. His campaign people are non-Vermonters, and they don't get it. Bernie Sanders has run 10 consecutive statewide elections. Bernie has shaken every hand in the state at least 10 times. We all know Bernie. No one believes Bernie is in favor of child molesters or terrorists, and that's what Rich Tarrant is saying."

With Sanders' trademark shock of white hair and a booming voice that betrays its Brooklyn origins, he has been a Vermont political fixture since he won his first mayor's race by a handful of votes in 1981. He is known throughout the state by his first name only: Even his red-and-white campaign signs declare "BERNIE for U.S. Senate."

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