Coming after his stunning upset of Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary, the general election was Ned Lamont’s to lose. He lost it, in no small part by running a tepid middle game. In the futile hope that Lieberman would drop out if given room, Lamont went on vacation after the primary. Then the campaign wasted precious weeks trying to win voters on issues other than the war, papering the state with bland flyers and ads emphasizing not Joe’s War but Lamont’s social qualifications as a suburban family man and entrepreneur and making the dubious argument that a three-term senator wasn’t bringing in federal dollars. That strategy never eroded Lieberman’s lead among GOP voters, who know a Republican when they see one, and it failed to persuade a crucial minority of Democrats. In the campaign’s final couple of weeks, Lamont focused once again almost excusively on the war, and the gap again narrowed–though never enough.
Even with these Lamont failures, make no mistake: It was Republican votes and Republican campaign contributors who put Lieberman over the top. Lieberman, who long ago stopped caring about whether his dances with the far right help or hurt the Democratic Party, now is in the position–at once powerful and delicate–of caucusing with Democrats while owing his seat to Karl Rove and the Bush White House. Yes, if he is the decisive vote in a one-seat Democratic majority, he’ll get to jack up Democratic Senate leadership for a powerful committee chair and much, much more. But he’ll also be unable to make a move without looking as if he is carrying water for the GOP: a political version of Matt Damon’s mobbed-up cop in The Departed, forever undermining his team’s playbook with calls to “Dad.”
Joe Lieberman’s pals in the Democratic Leadership Council will undoubtedly claim his victory as a repudiation of antiwar progressives; Mayor Bloomberg, who lent his support to Lieberman, may think the Connecticut election heralds a new era of centrism. It was neither. It was Lamont, whatever his other failures, who with his primary victory stiffened the nerve of Democrats around the country, persuading them that they could run head-on against the war and win. In Connecticut’s Congressional races, antiwar sentiment swept Democrat Chris Murphy to victory over Republican Nancy Johnson, a fixture in state politics for years, and at this writing two other Congressional campaigns are too close to call, with Iraq the prime engine driving each. The truth is that Joe Lieberman won an idiosyncratic victory. He holds his seat despite his relentless support for Iraq–rather than because of it.