Politically Thinking: Leahy foes hope to tap discontent

Patrick Leahy will ask Vermont voters to return him to the Senate for a seventh term this November. With more than 35 years in the Senate, Leahy has served in that body longer than anyone in the history of Vermont. He is also the third most senior member among the current 100 senators.Leahy’s seniority and previous electoral success make him a strong favorite to be re-elected this fall. Leahy will face at least two opponents, one in the Democratic primary and another in the general election. In what is shaping up to be a turbulent political year, will Leahy’s 2010 challengers do better than those who have run against him previously?In the Democratic primary, Leahy will be challenged from the left by Daniel Freilich, a physician from Wilmington, in Windham County, who recently retired from the Navy. Freilich hopes to tap into what he sees as progressive Vermonters’ discontent with the policies and priorities of the Obama Administration. Freilich is a strong advocate of a publicly funded, single-payer universal health care system, although he does note that he favors “socialized insurance” rather than “socialized medicine.” Freilich also favors a much more progressive income tax system than is now on the books. He argues that Obama, Leahy, and the Democratic majorities in Congress are too willing to adopt politically expedient measures rather than the optimal reforms that he believes are necessary.In previous elections, challengers from the left opposing Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch have received between 5 and 12 percent of the vote in Democratic primaries. Vermont Democrats, especially those who vote in Democratic primaries, are among the most progressive voters in the country. If Freilich can convince 15 or 20 percent of Democratic primary voters to support him over Leahy, who was one of the strongest opponents of the Bush-Cheney Administration in Congress, he would show that there is more than a sliver of discontent with the priorities of the Obama Administration and congressional Democrats among Vermont progressives.Leahy’s Republican challenger in November will be Len Britton, the owner of a small lumber and feed business in Taftsville, in Windsor County. Prior to taking over this family business, Britton, who holds degrees from UVM and Dartmouth, worked as a writer and a ski coach. He will present himself to Vermont voters as someone who would be a citizen legislator, rather than an entrenched member of the Washington establishment.Like most Republican congressional candidates, Britton opposes nearly every domestic initiative of the Obama Administration. Unlike most Republicans, Britton opposes the “surge” in Afghanistan, and, according to his Web site, favors “low-profile, high-impact” special operations missions rather than nation-building and a counter-insurgency strategy.Senators with Leahy’s seniority typically receive 65 to 70 percent, or more, of the vote in the general election. In 2004, the last time he was on the ballot, Leahy defeated his Republican challenger, Jack McMullen, by 71 to 25 percent. By Election Day, Leahy will raise well over $3 million for his campaign. Britton will get little, if any, financial help from Washington Republicans, whose priorities will be on Senate seats that are more winnable than Vermont. A better-than-expected result for Britton would be for him to receive 30 to 40 percent of the vote in November. Such a result would indicate that even in Vermont, grassroots conservative populism can attract some support.Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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