Thoughts on the primary defeat of Joe Lieberman


Three members of Congress were denied renomination in their primaries Tuesday. Democrat Cynthia McKinney lost 59 to 41 percent in the Georgia Fourth District: The prosperous black voters of the DeKalb County suburbs evidently have had enough of her shenanigans.

Republican Joe Schwarz lost in the Michigan Seventh to a more conservative candidate; McCain backer Schwarz had won with a plurality against five more conservative opponents in the 2004 primary. But, of course, the nation's eyes (or the eyes of the nation's political junkies) were not on these interesting races but on the result in Connecticut, where Democrat Joe Lieberman lost 52 to 48 percent to Iraq withdrawal advocate Ned Lamont. Some observations:

  • It's not at all obvious that Lieberman will leave the Senate. He's running as an "independent Democrat," and all but one poll matching him against Lamont and the Republican nominee, a man named Alan Schlesinger who appears to be a very weak candidate, show him with big leads. Those leads may not stand up in subsequent weeks. Lamont is getting endorsed by just about all Democratic politicians, starting with Lieberman's 18-year Connecticut colleague Christopher Dodd, and that may cost him some support-although I think voters tend to discount such endorsements, on the grounds that it's just about obligatory for politicians of any party to endorse the party's primary winner. In any case, races with serious and well-known independent candidates can be volatile, since voters are not tied down by partisan allegiances. My guess is that most self-identified Republicans will vote for Lieberman (on Fox News last night former Bush White House staffer Mary Matalin came close to endorsing him) and that many self-identified Democrats will as well. Lamont carried most of the small towns in the state, and by wide margins in the kind of Litchfield County towns where most registered Democrats are New York-oriented writers and artists; but turnout there was very small, and these left-wing voters may be swamped by their more centrist neighbors-the storekeepers and handymen who serve them-in November. Overall, Lieberman has a long record that's usually in sync with most Connecticut voters and is widely admired for his strong character and good humor. If I had to bet, I'd put my money on Lieberman.
  • It's pretty extraordinary for voters of one party to reject that party's former vice presidential nominee. Lieberman's defeat, though by a narrow margin and in a primary where less than one sixth of the state's registered voters voted, is still a stinging setback. It's another sign of the left's strength in the Democratic Party.
  • This was a big defeat for supporters of Israel. Lieberman was one of Israel's strongest and most capable supporters in Congress, but that seems to have counted for very little. He did carry towns with large Jewish communities (Bloomfield outside Hartford, Orange outside New Haven, his own home base) but was badly beaten in high-income towns that have historically excluded Jews (notably Lamont's home town of Greenwich). But Democratic voters aren't very supportive of Israel these days-much less so than Republican voters, as I recently noted. Republicans favor continuing our alignment with Israel over a more neutral posture by a 64 to 29 percent margin. Democrats favor a more neutral posture by a 54 to 39 percent margin. And look who Lamont had at his side on election night-Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
  • It may be time to revise one of the cardinal rules of poll interpretation--that an incumbent is not going to get a higher percentage in an election than he got in the polls. Lieberman was clocked at 41 and 45 percent in recent Quinnipiac polls; he got 48 percent in the primary election. The assumption has been that voters know an incumbent, and any voter who is not for him will vote against him. But the numbers suggest that Lieberman's campaigning over the last weekend may have boosted his numbers-or that the good feelings many Democratic voters have had for him over the years may have overcome their opposition to his stands on Iraq and foreign policy.
  • Another possibility: The left is noisy, assertive, in your face, quick to declare its passionate support. Voters on the right and in the center may be quieter but then stubbornly resist the instruction of the mainstream media and show up on Election Day and vote Republican, as they did in 2004, or for Lieberman, as some apparently did this week.
  • There was no exit poll, but apparently Lieberman carried black voters, despite Jesse Jackson's and Al Sharpton's vocal support of Lamont. That may have been counterbalanced by Bill Clinton's appearance for Lieberman. And it may also owe something to this contrast: Lieberman volunteered to work in the civil rights movement in Mississippi in the summer of 1964-an act that required genuine courage-while Lamont this year resigned from the exclusive Round Hill Club in Greenwich of which he was a member, presumably quite contentedly, for many years.
  • Blogger Brendan Loy, who did such a splendid job of covering Hurricane Katrina, has announced that he has quit the Democratic Party out of disgust with Lieberman's defeat. Excerpt: "News flash, people: The Democratic Party is the 'small tent' party of the 21st century. That's been getting clearer for a while, and today it became official. You dissent from the party line, you're hung out to dry. That's the lesson of today's vote, and it's a disturbing one to anyone who cares about the future of the Democratic Party." Is Loy, who is in his 20s, a harbinger of other young voters, who were attracted to the Democratic Party by Bill Clinton's tolerant image and turned off by George W. Bush's preachiness and cultural conservatism? Just asking. A Republican Party whose leading 2008 candidates are Rudy Giuliani and John McCain may look more tolerant and welcoming than a Democratic Party whose leading 2008 candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton is increasingly being batted around by the hard left.
  • What will be the effect of a second Lieberman-Lamont contest on Connecticut's House races? Democrats have targeted the state's three Republican congressmen, with some good reason. Rob Simmons's Second District in eastern Connecticut voted 54 to 44 percent for Kerry in 2004; working in Simmons's favor is the work he (and others in the Connecticut delegation, including Lieberman) did on preserving the New London submarine base in the base closing process. Simmons was one of the few Republicans to vote against the Iraq war resolution-the opposite of Lieberman's stand. In the Fourth District, which voted 52 to 46 percent for Kerry, incumbent Chris Shays is in a rematch with Democrat Diane Farrell. Shays, cosponsor of the House version of McCain-Feingold, has a liberal record on many issues, and has also strongly supported President Bush on Iraq, which he has visited 13 times-more, apparently, than any other member of Congress. He has already endorsed Lieberman. Democrats are also targeting Nancy Johnson, who had a close race in 1996 but has since won by wide margins; she is a high-ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee. This was a Kerry district, too, but only by 1,112 votes, 49.3 to 49.0 percent. The district includes industrial New Britain and Bristol, which Lieberman carried over Lamont, plus Litchfield County towns where Lamont had huge percentages in low turnout (up to 91 percent in Cornwall).