Jeffords Exit Gives GOP Chance For Senate Gain

The surprise announcement from Vermont’s Republican-turned-Independent Sen. James Jeffords that he will not seek re-election in ’06 has given Republicans a key opportunity to increase their 55-seat majority in the Senate.

Within an hour of the announced exit of Jeffords–a three-term senator whose change of parties in ’01 briefly gave Democrats a majority in the Senate–the office of Republican Gov. Jim Douglas in Montpelier was deluged with calls urging him to run for the open Senate seat. A press spokesman for Douglas confirmed to us that a bid for the Senate was “the nature of the calls” the governor had been receiving and “dozens of calls” have come in. National Chairman Ken Mehlman and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Elizabeth Dole (R.-N.C.) were among those trying to reach Douglas, who was attending a Republican Governors Association meeting, said Press Secretary Jason Gibbs.

“Gov. Douglas is focused on being governor right now,” Gibbs told us, “His agenda include balancing the budget, saving Medicaid, reforming health care, and passing our omnibus public safety bill. Speculation about what he will do in ’06 is premature. He’ll take an appropriate amount of time [to study the Senate race] and make a decision, I assume, sometime after legislative session concludes this spring.”

A former secretary of state and state treasurer, moderate-to-conservative Douglas drew a strong 45% of the vote in 1992 as the Republican nominee against Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy. Narrowly elected governor in ’02 and re-elected handily last fall, Douglas had previously announced he would not oppose the more liberal Jeffords, a longtime family friend. But with the 70-year-old senator calling it quits, Douglas may now make the race for the seat he reportedly has long eyed.

On the Democratic side, the almost-certain Senate nominee is Rep. Bernard Sanders, an Independent who has long been elected with Democratic support. Sanders is best-known for his years as the Socialist mayor of Burlington and has done little to trim his arch-liberal views since going to Congress in 1990. While the man conservatives dub “the Sandernista” has a record that is easy to attack, Sanders is also considered one of the ablest and most resourceful campaigners in the Green Mountain State.