- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, who bolted the Republican Party in 2001 to put the Democrats temporarily in charge of the Senate, said yesterday that he will not seek re-election next year because of his declining health and his wife’s battle with cancer.

The maverick senator, who became an independent but usually voted with Democrats, had said he would run again and likely would have won a fourth term in a heavily Democratic state that presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts won last year by a 20-point margin over President Bush.

His decision opens up another Senate seat, the fourth one this year, that could lead to a divisive primary battle among Democrats and a potential opportunity for Republicans — who have made gains in the state — to add to their 55-seat senatorial majority.

“I have decided to close this chapter of my service to Vermont and not to seek re-election in 2006,” said Mr. Jeffords, who turns 71 in May. “There have been questions about my health, and that is a factor as well. My memory fails me on occasion,” he told reporters in Burlington, Vt.

Officials in both parties expressed confidence that their party would pick up the seat. But the likelihood of Rep. Bernard Sanders, the state’s independent congressman and self-described socialist, entering the contest raised the prospect of a multicandidate race that would divide the Democrats and improve the Republicans’ chances of picking up another seat.

The question the Democrats have to answer is whether they would field their own candidate or embrace Mr. Sanders. Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), said it was “very possible” the Democrats would support Mr. Sanders, but added that it is “early days yet.”

“Sanders won by 68 percent of the vote last time. [Democratic Sen. Patrick J.] Leahy won with 71 percent of the vote. Clearly, this is a state that is friendly to Democrats and unfriendly to the Republicans,” a DSCC official said.

“Bernie Sanders is a self-identified socialist, not a Democrat,” said Jim Barnett, the Republican chairman of Vermont. “You really have to wonder if the Democrats cannot field a candidate of their own when their party chairman is a Vermonter, what that says about their party. It would be an embarrassment.”

But elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg said he would be surprised if the Democrats nominated someone else. “I think they will put all of their chips behind Bernie Sanders. If Democrats run a solid candidate on the Democratic line and Sanders runs as an independent, creating a three-way race, that only increases the chances that a Republican would win the race,” Mr. Rothenberg said.

Several Republicans were considering the race, beginning with two-term Gov. Jim Douglas, who had endorsed Mr. Jeffords for re-election. “The governor certainly would be very formidable,” Mr. Barnett said.

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