WASHINGTON -- Vermont's Democratic Party is maneuvering to keep the Democratic candidates for the state's open US Senate seat off the November ballot, as party leaders seek to clear the way for independent Representative Bernard Sanders in his bid for the Senate.
State Democratic leaders are spearheading efforts to gather signatures to put Sanders on the ballot as a Democrat, even though Sanders has repeatedly said he would turn down the party's nomination if he wins the primary. At least three other candidates have announced their intention to run for the Democratic nomination in the Sept. 12 primary, but party leaders prefer Sanders to any of them.
Ian Carleton, the chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party, said the party's efforts to secure the nomination for Sanders is a concession to political reality: Polls indicate that Sanders is so popular in Vermont that no Democrat has a real chance of beating him.
Carleton added that Sanders has largely supported Democratic priorities and was the only candidate to ask for the state party committee's endorsement.
``Bernie Sanders has by far the best chance of winning, and would work closely with and would respect Democratic leadership in Washington," Carleton said. ``Anyone who takes a practical look at Vermont politics will say that this is the best thing to do for the greater good here."
If Sanders wins the Democratic nomination but declines it, he will go head-to-head with the Republican candidate. Since the Democrats technically won't have a candidate on the ballot, Sanders won't have to contend with a third candidate who could siphon votes away from him. Sanders, a self- described ``democratic socialist," has typically voted with Democrats during his eight terms as Vermont's sole House member.
Democrats have had a long, complicated relationship with Sanders, based largely on mutual self-interest and the wide swath of issues on which they agree. Sanders has often mocked Democrats for taking stands he considers too moderate, yet he typically votes with them. Sanders gets his committee assignments and seniority privileges based on his affiliation with the House Democratic caucus.
Sanders's candidacy for the seat left open by the retirement of independent Senator James M. Jeffords has put national Democrats in the uncomfortable position of supporting Sanders in lieu of any Democratic candidates. National party leaders have also been preoccupied with the Democratic primary challenge to Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut. A range of prominent party members have said they will support whoever wins the primary in that race.
State and national Democrats, however, are backing Sanders in the Vermont Senate race because Sanders has said he would caucus with Democrats in the Senate, as he has in the House. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is involving Sanders in fund-raisers for Democratic Senate candidates.
Still, the party's decision to shun self-described Democrats in Vermont has led some to accuse their leaders of rigging the election. Peter Moss, a retired chemical engineer who announced last week that he will run for the Democratic Senate nomination, called the party establishment's support for Sanders ``highly unethical" and unfair to outsider candidates.
``If you're not a longstanding member of the clique, you're not only out, but they'll keep you out," Moss said.
Jim Barnett, chairman of the Vermont Republican Party, said the Democrats' decision to embrace Sanders is another example of their lurch to the left. Sanders, 64, supports a state-run ``single-payer" healthcare system, opposes foreign trade agreements, and has said Democrats and Republicans alike are too influenced by ``big money."
``It's a growing trend of the Democratic Party becoming evermore so extreme," Barnett said, citing the antiwar challenge that Lieberman is facing from Ned Lamont in Connecticut.
Though Sanders has had a sometimes rocky relationship with Democratic leaders, Vermont's Democratic state committee voted to endorse him anyway in January. Sanders's campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, said Sanders appreciates the party's support, even though Democratic leaders know he isn't one of them.
``They understand that he is an independent, and will run in the general election as an independent," Weaver said.
Carleton said the Democrats' early intervention in the race is crucial in part because Vermont has among the most liberal ballot-access laws in the nation. Candidates for statewide office need just 500 signatures of registered voters to appear on a primary ballot. Because the state has no system of formal party registration, Democrats and the GOP alike must sometimes contend with ``opportunistic party-jumping" from politicians, Carleton said.
Moss, 77, lost the Republican Senate primary in 2004, and acknowledges that he is running as a Democrat this year because it's the easiest path to the November ballot. The other Democratic candidates include Larry Drown -- a plumber who has run for previous offices under the Republican and Reform Party banners -- and Craig Hill, who helped found the Vermont Green Party.
Two candidates, Richard Tarrant and Greg Parke, are running in the Republican primary. Barnett said the state GOP is officially neutral in that race, though he noted that Tarrant received the overwhelming support of party regular in a nonbinding straw poll taken in May.