The man who turned over control of the U.S. Senate to Democrats by abandoning the GOP in 2001 died today at age 80. Former senator Jim Jeffords entered Vermont politics in the 1950s when it was the most rock-ribbed Republican state in the country. New residents gradually made it so liberal it now sends socialist Bernie Sanders to the Senate.
But Jeffords himself didn’t change. He was always a liberal Republican who backed federal education spending and environmental regulation. When serving in the House, he was the only Republican to vote against President Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts in 1981. As a senator, he opposed the nomination appointment of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court.
When voters elected a Senate made up of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans in 2000, the writing was on the wall as to which party would ultimately exercise full control. Jeffords decided that George W. Bush, who became notorious as a big spender in the White House, was nonetheless too conservative for him. He became an independent in May 2001, and decided to caucus with the Democrats.
Jeffrey Wennberg, a former mayor of Jeffords’s hometown of Rutland, also worked on his congressional staff. He told reporters he was mystified by Jeffords’s explanation for his party shift. “Jim backed Bush last year in the primaries and general election knowing he was a conservative,” he told me back in 2001. “Now Bush as president isn’t doing anything he didn’t campaign on.” Other Republicans were apoplectic. GOP leader Trent Lott of Mississippi dubbed Jeffords’s action a “coup of one” and described it as “the impetuous decision of one man to undermine our democracy.”
There is little doubt that Jeffords had some political motives for his decision. He won a promise from Democrats he would chair the key Environment and Public Works Committee before he agreed to abandon the GOP. But his time as chairman was limited: Republicans retook the Senate in 2002, and Jeffords himself chose to retire due to ill health in 2006. He was a man who was never fully comfortable in either party, and as a result never left much of a legislative footprint beyond his moment in the limelight in 2001.