Sen. James M. Jeffords, whose defection from the Republican Party in 2001 gave the Democrats control of the Senate, announced Wednesday that he would not seek reelection in 2006.
Jeffords, who will be 71 in May, ended the 50-50 split in the Senate four years ago by announcing that he was disheartened by the GOP’s conservative turn and was becoming an independent. His switch left Republicans in the minority for a year and a half.
At a hastily arranged news conference in South Burlington, Vt., Jeffords cited unspecified health concerns, as well as the health of his wife, Elizabeth, who was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.
“I have decided to close this chapter of my service to Vermont and not to seek reelection in 2006,” he said.
In the race to succeed Jeffords, attention immediately focused on Rep. Bernard Sanders, an independent who has represented the state’s single congressional district since 1991 and has been a reliable vote for some of the most liberal causes in the House.
Sanders, who came to national prominence as the Socialist mayor of Burlington, said in an interview Wednesday that “today is a day to honor a guy who has done a great job for a small state.”
In the past, Sanders has said he would be interested in running if the Senate seat became open -- a statement he and his aides pointed to when asked Wednesday about his intentions.
Former Gov. Howard Dean, perhaps the state’s best-known Democrat, said through a spokesman that he would honor his commitment to serve a four-year term, which he has just begun, as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
“He’s committed to working for the long-term interests of the Democratic Party and so he is not going to run,” said party spokesman Josh Earnest.
Although the state’s political persona is that of a haven for liberals, its governor is Republican and until barely 25 years ago it elected Republicans to both the Senate and the governor’s office for more than a century.
Political scientists and politicians in the state said that Gov. Jim Douglas would be the most likely GOP candidate, although a very reluctant one.
“The question is whether he’d be willing to risk the governorship,” said former Gov. Madeleine M. Kunin, a Democrat.
Douglas won election in November with 58.7% of the vote, on the same day that Democrat John F. Kerry won 58.9% of the state’s presidential vote and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, another Democrat, won reelection to a sixth term with 70.6%.
The vote for Douglas notwithstanding, “it’s now a clear blue state,” said Garrison Nelson, a political science professor at the University of Vermont and an expert on New England politics. “It’s Sanders’ seat to lose.”
Indeed, Sanders, asked about his prospects, pointed to the Kerry margin and his own victory -- his closest challenger was 43 percentage points behind him -- and said: “You can draw your own conclusions. Vermont is one of the most progressive states.”
Given his ability to run well even against a Democratic tide, Douglas is likely to come under considerable pressure to give up the governorship and carry the party’s banner in the Senate race.
The governor’s term is two years, but Vermont has a recent history of returning incumbents for multiple terms without serious challenge.
Douglas and President Bush have not established a close relationship, said Eric Davis, a professor of political science at Middlebury College, but turning down a plea to run for the Senate “will be very hard if the president himself makes the call.”
At the heart of the intense pressure that could develop around the race is the future of the Senate. With four senators having announced they will not seek reelection, and several incumbents in each party vulnerable to energetic challenges, the 2006 elections could bring changes in the Senate’s makeup, now 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and Jeffords, who typically votes with the Democrats. Of the open seats, Democrats hold two and Republicans one; Jeffords holds the fourth.
For Republicans, the goal is 60 seats -- enough to overcome a filibuster. For Democrats, the goal is 51 -- enough to reclaim the majority. Neither goal appeared attainable, said Jennifer Duffy, managing editor of the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes political races.
Jeffords began his state political career with election to the Vermont Senate in 1966. He served as attorney general from 1968 to 1972 and was elected to the House of Representatives in 1974. He was elected to the first of three Senate terms in 1988.