House Contest in Vt. Features Hot Debate
Thursday, November 2, 2006; 2:45 AM
WOODSTOCK, Vt. -- Perhaps it's Vermont's famous maple syrup or the Ben and Jerry's ice cream, but this year's campaign for the state's only House seat is almost sweet.
In an election season noted for its vitriol, Republican Martha Rainville and Democrat Peter Welch said they wanted to run campaigns free of personal attacks _ and that's what they've done.
The race's detour onto the high road is particularly noteworthy because the contest is for an open seat being vacated by Rep. Bernie Sanders, an independent who is running for the Senate. Open seats are usually top targets for both parties and the special interest groups that often underwrite negative advertising. Party leaders and the campaigns of the House candidates say it's the only contested race in the country accentuating the positive.
"By all indications (2006) is going to go down as the most negative campaign in recent midterm history," said Vanderbilt University political science professor John Geer, who has written a book about negative campaign ads.
"That makes the Vermont case stand out even more," Geer said. "It certainly is an example of candidates being committed to something and figuring that the risks of going negative are high enough that they've got to stick to that pledge."
Rainville, 48, who is making her first run for public office after leading the Vermont National Guard, got the ball rolling when she challenged Welch to sign what she called a "clean campaign pledge" that included voluntary spending limits.
Welch, 59, the president pro tem of the state senate, didn't sign the pledge, but he agreed with its goal.
"Once she put out that pledge, it would have been nearly impossible for her and very, very difficult for the Democrats to start running negative ads," said Middlebury College political science professor Eric Davis.
That hasn't stopped Rainville and Welch from disagreeing over Iraq, tax policy, health care and the future of Congress.
Welch, who had a 10 percentage-point lead in a poll released last week, has run against the Republican led-Congress and the Bush administration as much as he has run against Rainville.
Rainville, meanwhile, has promoted her national security experience and her independence from Republican leadership. She wants troops withdrawn from Iraq but not before the United States reaches its objectives. She favors lower taxes and reduced federal spending, including an end to what she calls frivolous congressional spending, and she backs using market forces to drive down the cost of health insurance.
Both camps claim credit for taking the high road.
"There is no question that Martha Rainville has set the tone," said Ed Patru, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Campaign, which has spent more than $600,000 on Rainville's campaign. "Her focus on a different kind of candidate and a different kind of campaign has kind of dictated the terms under which this contest so far has been waged."
Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has run more than $300,000 worth of ads for Welch, had similar comments.
"I think Peter Welch has modeled his campaign on laying out his vision for the issues," Psaki said. "He's really focused it on a positive agenda. We have taken the lead from how he's run his campaign as to what is most important to the people of Vermont."
Voters appreciate the civility.
"I would applaud both candidates for the quality of the race," said Welch supporter Bob Bibby, a retired high school history teacher. "You can disagree without being disagreeable."