Politically Thinking: Salmon facing tough 2012 decision

Sen. Bernie Sanders has already started organizing and raising money for his re-election campaign in 2012. Meanwhile, State Auditor Tom Salmon has told reporters and Republican activists that he is likely to announce in early March that he will be a candidate for the U.S. Senate next year. Sanders will file petitions to appear on the ballot as an independent, but he could also win the Democratic primary on write-in votes. Sanders would be a strong favorite for re-election in a campaign against Salmon. Since popular election of U.S. senators began nearly 100 years ago, every U.S. senator from Vermont seeking another term has been re-elected. Sanders will add his personal appeal to this general incumbent advantage. In 2006, Sanders was elected to his first term in the Senate with 65 percent of the vote. Before that, Sanders had served 16 years in the U.S. House. One has to go all the way back to 1996 to find an election in which Sanders received less than 60 percent of the vote.President Obama will do very well in Vermont in 2012. Vermont will likely vie with Hawaii for the state in which Obama will have the highest percentage of the vote in his re-election campaign. Gov. Shumlin and Congressman Welch should also perform strongly at the polls in 2012. The strength of these Democratic candidates at the top of the ballot will make the Senate campaign a difficult one for Republican Salmon.Sanders reported last week that he raised nearly half a million dollars in the final three months of 2010. Unlike many incumbent members of Congress, who raise a third to a half, or more, of their campaign budgets from political action committees, Sanders relies heavily on small contributions from individuals in Vermont and around the country. In his 2006 Senate race, when he was outspent by Republican Richard Tarrant’s self-financed campaign, Sanders raised almost 90 percent of his campaign contributions from individuals. Sanders’ campaign organization has become very adept at using the Internet and social media to raise funds in $25, $50, and $100 amounts from progressives all around the country.By November 2012, Sanders should be able to raise several million dollars for his re-election campaign. Salmon will have difficulty raising more than half a million dollars. The Republican donor base in Vermont is relatively small. More importantly, Salmon will not receive much more than minimal financial support from national Republican committees. National Republicans believe they have a good chance of winning a majority in the Senate in 2012, whether or not Obama is re-elected. Of the 33 Senate seats that are up for election in 2012, 23 are now held by Democrats, or by independents (Sanders and Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman) who caucus with the Democrats. The Republicans need to pick up only four seats to organize the Senate after the next election. Republican committees and wealthy donors will focus their attention on Senate races in competitive states such as Florida, Missouri, Ohio and Virginia, where Republican candidates have much better chances of winning than Salmon does in Vermont. If Salmon does indeed leave the auditor’s office to run for the U.S. Senate, the campaign to fill the open seat as auditor could turn out to be more competitive than Salmon’s race against Sanders. In fact, as things now stand, auditor is likely to be the only statewide office in which an incumbent will not be seeking re-election next year in Vermont.<em>Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.</em>

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