Lamont vs. Lieberman, Round 2
It's hard to know how to gauge polls in this emotional and hard-fought race--the usual tests for likely voters in the primary didn't predict the high turnout that propelled Lamont to the nomination. For weeks, Lieberman--holding on to one-third of Democrats--has been running a consistent ten points ahead of Lamont, but with 24 percent either undecided or willing to change their minds. As election day nears, that gap is closing. The Courant/UConn poll has Lieberman ahead of Lamont by eight points--48 to 40, compared with a twelve-point gap in August--but with 8 percent undecided and another 15 percent willing to change their minds. One key constituency: unaffiliated voters, who in Connecticut outnumber Democrats and Republicans alike. Among such voters Lieberman remains ahead, 45 to 37, but again, that's a volatile number. And Schlesinger could yet change the political chemistry. He made a surprisingly forceful impression in the first three-way debate on October 16.
Lamont remains largely self-financed; so far he's donated about $11 million of his own fortune to his campaign. Oak Investment Partners, run by his even more wealthy wife, and her workplace colleagues have contributed many thousands more. In another state Lamont's riches might raise eyebrows, but in the second-wealthiest state in the country (even adding in two of the country's poorest cities), that makes him only the latest in a long tradition of patrician reformers in both parties, from Chester Bowles to Lowell Weicker.
Sustaining Lieberman's campaign since August, on the other hand, is an unusual fundraising pipeline. Though Lieberman describes himself as an "Independent Democrat" and promises to caucus with Senate Democrats if re-elected, early campaign finance reports have made it clear that the primary shareholders in Lieberman Inc. include prominent Republicans and White House allies--like Mel Sembler, chair of the defense fund for indicted Bush Administration official Scooter Libby. Sembler hosted a Florida fundraiser for Lieberman in September. Anti-Lamont ads are being paid for by the Free Enterprise Fund, backed by Karl Rove associate Bob Perry, a Texas financier who in 2004 bankrolled Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Those GOP donations to Lieberman have drawn much attention. But just as notable are his other principal investors: He has raised more than $500,000 from the financial services industry--Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and the like. Credit card companies and big lenders have come to love Lieberman: In the Senate and as former chair of the Democratic Leadership Council he flirted with Social Security privatization and championed free-trade agreements that drive capital into investment funds, even as record numbers of Americans find themselves burdened with irresolvable debt. Indeed, that record adds a layer of irony to Lieberman's lingering support from the Naugatuck Valley's old Democratic machines: The capital flight that devastated blue-collar Connecticut was accelerated by the very free-trade policies he has championed since arriving in the Senate in 1989. "Joe Lieberman: Everyone's Senator but Yours" might as well be the slogan of this PAC-fed insider.
With the campaign in its final weeks, all that money on both sides is unleashing a torrent of new advertising. Lieberman continues to sound the experience theme; the supposedly independent Free Enterprise Fund paints Lamont as a "tax-and-spend liberal." Lamont counters with ads using Lieberman's own 1988 spots against then-incumbent Lowell Weicker: legendary, lethal parody cartoons of a hibernating bear, saying that after eighteen years it's time for a change from complacent leadership. But the Lamont-Lieberman campaign also tests whether progressive grassroots activists within the Democratic Party can deliver. In the 1980s and '90s, Connecticut progressives championed aggressive primary challenges to incumbent conservative Democratic machine hacks in the state legislature. It was a pioneering strategy. The Lamont primary campaign was essentially a hypercaffeinated statewide rerun--in some ways, the ultimate battle for control of the Connecticut Democratic soul in a war that has now been going on for twenty years. In the August primary, progressives finally took out their old antagonist. But what about the general election? In the end it will come down to a battle of church buses and absentee ballots, and both sides know that it all comes down to get-out-the-vote field operations. Lamont's team, headed by veteran Connecticut Citizen Action Group director Tom Swan, established aggressive field operations months ago, when it appeared likely Lamont would need to petition his way onto the ballot. Lieberman, by contrast, has had to build his organization from scratch, and without Lamont's motivated and enthusiastic antiwar base. But after a lifetime in Connecticut politics, Lieberman has friends and favors to call in from every union and senior center in the state.
There's also a tight and equally unpredictable symbiosis between the Lamont-Lieberman campaign and three of Connecticut's five Congressional races. In Lamont's home of Fairfield County, longtime GOP incumbent Chris Shays--historically a moderate but an early, enthusiastic backer of the war in Iraq--is on the ropes, facing a Democratic selectwoman from Westport named Diane Farrell who nearly defeated him two years ago. In largely rural eastern Connecticut, former CIA operative Rob Simmons is in a tight race against Democratic legislator Joe Courtney, and in a district that includes most of the Naugatuck Valley, once-invulnerable moderate Republican Nancy Johnson is fighting hard against progressive State Senator Chris Murphy. Conventional wisdom holds that a Senate race will pull the lower ticket along, but in Connecticut this year the opposite may be true: All of these Democratic candidates have well-financed, well-organized operations developed over years and determined to draw anti-Bush voters to the polls.
How that will play out in battlegrounds like the Naugatuck Valley is anyone's guess. Joe Vicdomino, a Korean War veteran, retired Sikorsky manager and chairman of the Derby Democratic Town Committee, is a Lamont supporter. He frankly admits that probably two-thirds of his fellow committee members back Lieberman. Yet as Vicdomino talks, he drifts from the conventional backroom chatter of politics to his son. Like Sten Westguard's cousin, Vicdomino's son served in Iraq. Talking about the war's impact on his son arouses a quiet anger in Vicdomino's eyes that has nothing to do with the conversation a moment earlier about town committees, mayors and politics as usual.
The same polls showing Lieberman ahead suggest massive disquiet over Iraq: That recent Courant/UConn poll indicates that 60 percent of Connecticut voters believe going to war in Iraq was wrong, and a narrow majority favor setting a deadline for withdrawal. Twenty-eight Connecticut soldiers have died in Iraq, deaths that send out wide ripples in a small state. The question--with vivid national implications--is whether voters' clear revolt against the war translates into clear revolt against one of the war's principal promoters. For all the efforts of both Lamont and Lieberman to define themselves more broadly, the war is still what separates them most, and what matters most, in this race.