What’s Next for Jim Douglas?

Recently retired Governor of Vermont Jim Douglas is not a man to sit idle. First elected to the Vermont legislature the same year he graduated from Middlebury with a degree in Russian studies, he rose rapidly through the state’s elected offices despite his unenviable status as a Republican in the nation’s bluest state. In 2002 he succeeded Howard Dean as Governor and served four terms in office as one of the most popular state executives in America. Halfway through his final term, he still enjoyed an approval rating of 65 percent. While he may have stepped down as governor this year, his political career is far from over.

Douglas is a classic New England conservative; a member of an endangered species. He seems most comfortable in a suit and tie, drives an aging Dodge Neon and line-dries his clothes in order to save on his electric bill. He’s master of the ‘retail politics’ that dominate in Vermont and New Hampshire; I have not yet met a Vermonter who hasn’t shaken his hand at some point and he remembers all of them by name. With his embrace of the stimulus and support for environmental conservation, he is also the type of politician that, in any other state, the Tea Party would have run out of the GOP. In Vermont, however, this allowed him to survive the wave that swept Democrats into power in 2006 and 2008.

As a member of the minority party in a tiny state, Douglas has had to work with his opposition throughout his political career. It is clear when he disagrees with something, but he knows when to respond with a rueful smile or one of his many deadpan jokes. He seems to regard his opponents with a friendly respect, speaking admiringly of Dean’s job in office and Senator Patrick Leahy’s (D-VT) work in Washington. He refers to the new Democratic governor Peter Shumlin (D-VT) as “Shummy,” and had Congressman Peter Welch as a guest speaker in the class he taught this January. The one notable exception to this esteem for his adversaries is his clear distaste for Senator Bernie Sanders, the Socialist Democrat who has become a hero on the left for his opposition to any compromise on the Bush tax cuts. Douglas clearly sees Bernie as too extreme, too much of a firebrand and more of a show pony than a work horse.

All of this leads to the inevitable conclusion that Jim Douglas will attempt to unseat Sanders in 2012. He will deny this when asked, but it is clear that his mind could change if he sees a path to victory. Douglas ran for the Senate against Leahy in 1992, giving the veteran legislator a run for his money. Since then, his profile in the state has increased substantially. As a first-term Senator, Sanders is considerably more vulnerable than Leahy. His “take-no-prisoners” approach endears him to the liberal wing of his party, but he alienates both moderates and the press. Douglas, the popular governor of the bluest state in the nation, has already demonstrated his ability to win these voters, along with a large share of Democrats. This makes him the only Republican with a shot at winning the seat in 2012. No other candidate could seriously challenge Sanders. With his future career plans not yet laid, the chance to jump back into the arena next year may be too tempting to refuse.

This is bad news for Democrats nationally. They currently hold the Senate with a razor-thin majority and two-thirds of the seats up for reelection in 2012 belong to Democrats. If they lose a seat in Vermont, they will fare far worse in the rest of the nation. Much of their success depends on how President Barack Obama tackles unemployment and the debt; if neither has improved by 2012, Douglas could find himself the member of a large Senate majority. But one thing is certain: Douglas will not be content with an early retirement.  Politics is his only hobby.