Heated Vermont Senate Race Blankets Airwaves

In the race to succeed Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords, self-made millionaire Richard Tarrant is shoveling piles of money into TV ads attacking his opponent, independent Bernie Sanders. And Sanders is firing back. The result: media saturation in a state so small that 200,000 votes would be a landslide win.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

There's a senate race in Vermont, where incumbent Jim Jeffords, a liberal independent, is retiring. Two candidates are fighting to succeed him: the state's lone congressman, Bernie Sanders - also an independent who typically votes with the Democrats - and Republican Richard Tarrant. He's a self-made multimillionaire who's financing his own campaign.

For weeks, the Republican Tarrant has been slamming the Independent Sanders on TV. Now those ads define the contest, just not in the way Tarrant intended.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: Rich Tarrant has been on Vermont television almost nonstop all year. First, 15 different meet the candidate spots. Then, this summer before he'd actually won the Republican nomination, attacks on Sanders.

(Soundbite of TV campaign ad)

Unidentified Woman (Actress): (In television ad) What's happened to Bernie?

Mr. RICH TARRANT (Republican, Vermont): (In television ad) I'm Rich Tarrant, and I approve this message, because we really need to know how our representatives vote.

OVERBY: Ads accuse Sanders of quietly voting to protect child molesters and against single working mothers.

They don't mention the big issues, like the war or the economy.

Mr. GARRISON NELSON (Political Scientist, University of Vermont): The nastiest set of commercials Vermont has ever seen.

OVERBY: That's political scientist Garrison Nelson, of the University of Vermont.

These ads might be run-of-the-mill in other states, but in Vermont they've backfired. A recent poll shows that Sanders' negatives are up slightly, and Tarrant's' negatives are up more.

Dana Storer(ph) is 21 years old. He's from Randolph Center.

Mr. DANA STORER (Vermont): I think a lot of Vermonter's don't like the tactics Rich Tarrant is taking, so rather than just sitting down and having a conversation and approaching these issues, he's being real negative.

OVERBY: Storer goes to Vermont Technical College. The campus sits on a breezy hilltop in Randolph, the geographic center of the state. Tarrant was on campus for a conference on rural development. Afterwards, he said he has no second thoughts about the ads.

Mr. TARRANT: I think we're doing it exactly the way we should do it. The message is very aggressive, but that's what works. And there's nothing personal. I made it very clear, there's not to be any personal attacks.

OVERBY: This race had the makings of a classic contest. Vermont isn't as Democratic as outsiders might think. Two years ago, Vermonters elected a Republican as governor, a Democrat as senator, and Sanders, the Independent, as congressman.

The Senate seat now in play has always gone Republican. Jeffords, the incumbent, became an independent after his last election.

Sanders and Tarrant both came to Vermont in the 1960s: Sanders as a socialist, active in state politics, Tarrant as a college basketball star. Sanders has served in the House for 16 years. He can seem a bit rumpled and irascible. He's famous for arguing with voters, but also for looking out for their needs. Tarrant has a shock of white hair and the bearing of a CEO, which he's been. He and a partner built a software company and then sold it for more than a billion dollars. That's how Tarrant's paying of this campaign. As of late August, he had just 104 donors.

Mr. TARRANT: I will never apologize for success. But also, I'm not beholden to special interests.

OVERBY: Tarrant is on track to spend at least $7 million. But Sanders isn't that far behind. He has celebrity donors - Susan Sarandon and Pete Seeger are among them - and a huge network of small givers.

Mr. BERNIE SANDERS (Independent, Vermont): I'm fairly well known, nationwide. And we've always had a lot of national support from working people, people in the middle class: workers, environmentalists, women's advocates, and so forth. And we do a lot of mailing, to be frank with you.

OVERBY: The responses to that mail come here. It's a two-room office behind the Sanders campaign headquarters.

Ms. TINA SCANLON(ph) (Sanders Campaign): This one is $200. I have one for $100. Fifty dollars…

OVERBY: Tina Scanlon oversees the recordkeeping. On this day, the campaign says they took in $16,000.

Vermont only has about 300,000 voters. They can reasonably expect to meet the candidates face-to-face, not via consultant-crafted video. The legislature cited that special quality of state politics nine years ago - it passed a law restricting contributions and spending in state politics. Last spring, the Supreme Court overturned it.

Deborah Markowitz is the Secretary of State. She says voters may see big money and negative ads as inextricably linked.

Ms. DEBORAH MARKOWITZ (Secretary of State, Vermont): This whole culture of money and politics and moneyed politics, that's a culture that most Vermonters really don't want here. And maybe the Senate race is a referendum on that.

OVERBY: Here's strong evidence now that Republicans are shifting their energies away from Rich Tarrant. They're much more optimistic about Martha Rainville, their nominee for Vermont's Congressional Seat.

So, instead of the tagline in Tarrant's' ads - what's happened to Bernie - the lingering questions here may be these: what's happened to several million dollars of Rich Tarrant's fortune, and what will happen next election to Vermont's voter-friendly politics?

Peter Overby, NPR News.

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