Grassroots group gives Sanders early cash lift
By DARREN M. ALLEN Vermont Press Bureau | April 26,2005
MONTPELIER — Vermont members of a national online liberal advocacy group over the weekend pledged $135,000 toward U.S. Rep. Bernard Sanders' all-but-announced bid for the Senate next year, the group said Monday.
Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org's political action committee, said that more than 2,500 of the group's Vermont members responded to an e-mail sent Friday asking whether the group should back Sanders in his quest to take the seat being vacated in 2006 by Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt.
"It was a pretty amazing response," Pariser said in a brief telephone interview from his office in Maine. "We're a member-driven organization, and we wanted to gauge where our members were. About 96 percent of those responding said we should back Bernie. Obviously, he has a base of supporters who are ready to walk on fire for him."
In a state that has rout-inely rewarded the seven-term independent congressman withoverwhelming margins of victory, support from the left-leaning MoveOn isn't much of a surprise.
What is raising eyebrows, however, is the large financial commitment the group's members are willing to make so early in a campaign with no declared candidates.
And that, apparently, is one of the reasons MoveOn sought its members' thoughts just two days after Jeffords shook Vermont's political landscape by declaring he would not seek re-election because of his and his wife's failing health.
"This bombshell means that Vermont's Senate seat is now open, and we need to make sure it lands in the hands of a progressive who will strongly oppose the Bush agenda," said the e-mail to Vermont MoveOn members. "Rep. Sanders has been a hero on many of MoveOn's issues … If he becomes the consensus candidate quickly and is able to raise enough money, he could make Republican contenders think twice before jumping into the race."
Well, even at $135,000 over a weekend — considered real money in Vermont politics — Republicans are far from dissuaded at taking back a seat that they held until Jeffords' famous defection from the party in 2001 cost them control of the U.S. Senate for 18 months.
"The Republican Party isn't going to be scared out of this race by a bunch of extremists," said James Barnett, chairman of the Vermont Republican Party. "I can say with absolute certainty that we will have an outstanding candidate ready and willing and able to be the next senator from Vermont."
Who that candidate will be, of course, is a matter of great speculation.
Most observers seem convinced that Gov. James Douglas — who has been fielding phone calls from the White House urging him to run — would be Sanders' most formidable opponent and perhaps the one person in Vermont politics who travels the state from top to bottom more than Sanders does.
Douglas has not ruled out a run, nor has he said he would. His spokesman, Jason Gibbs, last week said that "only one person in the world" knows the governor's plans.
For their part, state Democrats are expected to stay out of what is likely to be the most high-profile race in Vermont politics in years.
Although they deny any agreements to pave an easier path for Sanders — who, after all, has criticized the Democratic Party for years — few observers foresee the emergence of a credible Democratic candidate.
"Jim Jeffords made a decision five days ago," said Peter Mallary, chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party. "To suggest that anyone should have a read on what the landscape is this far in advance is inaccurate."
Sanders is not expected to have fund-raising issues, particularly if the Democrats step aside. Already, the former mayor of Burlington has a campaign account brimming with more than $600,000.
"Congressman Sanders is clearly the strongest candidate able to prevent yet another Republican vote in the U.S. Senate," said Jeff Weaver, Sanders' chief of staff. "He has had a strong record in the House fighting against some of the more extreme elements of the Bush agenda, and he can do that even better in the U.S. Senate."
He has to get there first, of course. And Barnett's mission between now and next November is to make sure he doesn't, and he isn't particularly worried about MoveOn's support of Sanders.
"Vermonters have been abused for too long by extremists who seek to use our small state as a laboratory for their left-wing ideas," Barnett said.
Contact Darren Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org