(Host) Today, we begin a series of special reports on 2006 as the year comes to a close.
First up the fall elections.
In today’s report, VPR’s Steve Delaney finds that the candidates got into their races early, and that the voters made up their minds early.
Voters appeared to be un-swayed by the most expensive advertising campaign ever conducted in Vermont.
Here’s Steve Delaney.
(Delaney) Politically, the election year of 2006 began in mid-2005, when Congressman Bernie Sanders staked a pre-emptive claim to the Senate, on the same day Jim Jeffords announced he was retiring.
On the Republican side Burlington businessman Rich Tarrant shooed away potential rivals by pouring millions of his own dollars into the Senate campaign before the primary.
The most interesting race pitted State Senator Peter Welch, a Democrat, against Martha Rainville, who said she was a Republican candidate for Congress six weeks before giving up her Adjutant General’s uniform.
(Rainville) “It’s time to lay to rest the speculation and share my plan with Vermonters. And today I announce that I am a candidate for the Republican nomination to serve Vermont in the United State House of Representatives.”
(Delaney) Peter Welch cornered the Democratic nomination early, demonstrating financial resources and organizational skills. He made the conduct of the war in Iraq an early campaign centerpiece, pointing his finger at Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
(Welch) “He has been a failure from start to finish and the principle of accountability needs to be restored. And frankly, I think he’s lost the confidence of the military as well as of our allies.”
(Delaney) Rainville, who was still commanding the Vermont National Guard, said in response, this is not the time for finger-pointing.
There were other awkward moments that illustrated how hard it is to run for high office with no political experience. John Dillon reported on one Rainville lapse in late August.
(Dillon) One of the first and most important votes in a new Congress is for House Speaker, the person who controls the agenda and committee assignments.
At a news conference, Rainville appeared reluctant to say she would support the leadership of Illinois Republican Dennis Hastert.
(Rainville) “I don’t know. Would I support him? Would I abstain? Would it matter? I think we spend a lot of time on who are you going to vote for speaker. And it really just detracts attention from what we ought we ought to be talking about. I think it’s in some sense a ploy by some who don’t want to talk about the issues, or who want to keep Vermonters stirred up about a personality rather than real concerns on Vermonters minds.”
(Dillon) But Democratic candidate Peter Welch said the election of House Speaker transcends personality.
(Welch) “It matters enormously to the future of Vermont and to future of our country. It’s the most important vote that Vermont’s next member of Congress will cast. It’s absolutely a critical vote and it matters.”
(Delaney) Even later, when long out of uniform, Rainville was unable to separate herself from Republican Washington, especially when a series of TV ads promising she’d be an independent voice, ended with the phrase, paid for by the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee.
Rainville was an appealing candidate, and got high marks for running a clean campaign. But she was outspent, and lost to Welch by eight points in an almost universally bad year for Vermont Republicans.
The exception was Governor Jim Douglas, who has run for office statewide every two years since 1980, and has probably received more votes than any Vermonter in history.
Democrat Scudder Parker started with near-zero name recognition in his effort to unseat Douglas. A potential support asked him about being unknown early in the campaign.
(Woman) “What’s your plan for getting your face more well known?”
(Parker) “One of the things is to start early and get out and meet people. I don’t have enough money to go buy tv ad time at this point in the campaign. I will do that. But I really want to run a grass roots campaign where I get to sit and talk with people, because I think that’s an important part of the way good politics gets done in Vermont.”
(Delaney) Parker pushed Douglas hard on energy issues, especially the Governor’s opposition to big wind power projects. But November’s Democratic wave could not lift him over a popular incumbent, and Douglas was re-elected to a third term with relative ease.
In the Lieutenant Governor’s race, Republican Brian Dubie was re-elected over State Senator Matt Dunne.
Election officials spent most of December recounting the votes in the Auditors’ race, after Republican incumbent Randy Brock won by only 137 votes. When the counting was done, challenger Thomas Salmon held an even thinner unofficial lead, 104 votes
But all those contests were eclipsed by the struggle going on for the Jim Jeffords seat in the U.S. Senate.
Rich Tarrant, who’d recently sold his IDX medical software company for a billion dollars, started running biographical ads on TV months before he formally entered the race. On the day he announced, Tarrant tried to position himself as a Vermont outsider with answers.
(Tarrant) “I’m tired of partisan hatred, as the average businessperson, as the average Vermonter. You know, I want to get things done, I’m sick of Republican Senators, I’m sick of Democratic Senators. I have a novel idea. What about a U.S. Senator, wouldn’t that be interesting?”
(Delaney) Tarrant also tried to distance himself from President Bush on Iraq, but Bernie Sanders already held that ground.
In the end, Tarrant set a record he’d probably rather not have, in part because his central campaign strategy back-fired. Tarrant went negative in an unrelenting series of TV ads that charged Sanders with being indifferent to farmers, soft on child abuse, and bad for Vermont. Vermonters simply didn’t believe all that. Tarrant spent just under seven million dollars of his own money on his campaign and lost by a two-to-one margin.
Oh, that record. More than eighty dollars spent for every vote received. Nobody else has even come close, to that, anywhere, any when in American political history.
When the dust settled, Bernie Sanders, the Socialist, was in the U.S. Senate, alongside Jay Rockefeller and scores of lesser millionaires, and Jim Jeffords was coming home.
Frank Bryan teaches political science at UVM, and has supported Sanders over the years.
But in a commentary that aired after the election, he suggested that Sanders for Jeffords is not an even swap.
(Bryan) “In short we have replaced a real independent with an intense partisan. For Bernie Sanders is no independent. Vermont’s long and productive tradition of moderation in the Senate is now over. This tradition produced some great Senators including Ralph Flanders who led the fight against McCarthy in the 1950’s, Warren Austin, who became America’s first Ambassador to the United Nations and George Aiken an American jedi of reasoned deliberation in Washington. This fall we heard a lot of candidates, both Democrats and Republicans, lay claim to Jim Jeffords’ legacy. Jim Jeffords will soon leave the Senate. And he has not been replaced.”
(Delaney) About three weeks later, Jeffords closed his eighteen years in the Senate with some typically quiet remarks in a meeting of the Environment Committee.
I’m going home, he said, where the snow comes early, my wood-box is full, and my snowshoes are waiting.
His last words were like none ever heard in a Senate farewell, and were borrowed from a man he called, my friend, Robert Frost .
(Jeffords) “Whose woods these are I think I know, his house is in the village though. He will not see me stopping here to watch his woods fill up with snow. The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”
(Delaney) It’s to be hoped, miles indeed.
For VPR News, I’m Steve Delaney.