Lamont vs. Lieberman, Round 2

Lamont vs. Lieberman, Round 2

Lamont now lags behind Liebermans, but the Connecticut electorate is so volatile that the outcome is far from certain.


On a recent slate-gray October morning, Ned Lamont stopped by a McDonald’s perched on the west bank of the Naugatuck River in Derby, Connecticut. Derby is an old industrial village north of Bridgeport. From the nineteenth through much of the twentieth century, abundant hydropower turned Derby and the strip of riverside towns north to Waterbury into one of the nation’s dominant manufacturing districts. Immigrants poured into the lower Naugatuck Valley, laboring at factories that turned out raw brass and rubber and supplied the nation with corsets, clocks and machine tools. In 1955 floods from a devastating hurricane washed away some of Derby’s lower-lying neighboring towns, and a generation ago global capital flight finished the job. Affordable real estate prices and solid housing stock have turned pockets into bedroom communities for wealthy Fairfield County down the river, but most of the Valley remains marked by abandoned main streets, high unemployment and the perpetually disappointed hope of revitalization.

On this particular morning Lamont, whose grandfather’s partnership with J.P. Morgan created the family fortune, and who earned his own as a cable-TV entrepreneur before entering the US Senate race, was at the Derby McDonald’s for a meet-and-greet with Naugatuck Valley war veterans–mostly VFW members from Korea and World War II, long since retired from jobs at Sikorsky Helicopter, Scoville Brass and Seth Thomas Clocks. There were a lot of reporters around, mostly because Lamont’s sidekick this morning was retired Gen. Wesley Clark. The TV cameras and notebooks pointed at Clark as he denounced the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy and argued cheerfully with William “Wild Bill” Menna, the former mayor of neighboring Ansonia, who planned to vote for Lamont’s main opponent, former Democrat and now-independent Senator Joe Lieberman. “Do something ‘wild’ on Election Day,” Clark gamely urged Menna.

But while the reporters continued to mob Clark, a gangly young man named Sten Westguard approached Lamont on the sidelines and pressed a photo of a man in a uniform into the candidate’s hand. Almost inaudibly Westguard murmured to Lamont that this was a picture of his cousin in the 134th Field Artillery, who enlisted right after September 11 and is now on his second deployment in Iraq. “I’m worried to death about him, and you’ve got to get him home,” Westguard said to Lamont. “This is a big blunder.”

The purpose of the Lamont-and-Clark McDonald’s visit seemed transparent: to burnish Lamont’s national-security credentials in his general election campaign against Lieberman, the prowar, three-term incumbent whom Lamont defeated in the Democratic primary. But there was more to it. The Naugatuck Valley is Lieberman’s stronghold. This neighborhood of solidly working- and lower-middle-class Democrats is the only zone of the state where Lieberman outran Lamont in August. Several of the region’s Democratic officials, notably the mayor of 100,000-strong Waterbury a few miles up Route 8 from Derby, have broken with the state party to stick with Lieberman, putting their still-potent (and in the case of Waterbury, notoriously corrupt) political machines to work for him in the general election. Lamont needs every vote he can get in the Valley.

With Lieberman now campaigning as an independent, the Connecticut Senate race is no mere rerun. Lieberman, who seemed not to know what hit him during the primary, returned to the political stage with new muscle, scoring Lamont in speeches and campaign ads for inexperience. And he appears to have decided to let Lieberman be Lieberman: prowar, cultural conservative, champion of global free-trade measures and privatization, all the while claiming politics is too partisan. When the Senate took up Bush’s enemy-combatants bill, Lieberman–ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee–ignored the pleas of retired generals like Hugh Shelton and Colin Powell and backed the President. “These are people who will kill any of us, all of us,” he said of Guantánamo detainees. His only bow to the antiwar sentiment that fueled his primary defeat has been to call for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation on the grounds that the Iraq operation needs new leadership, and he has insisted, against any available evidence, that he’s sought Rumsfeld’s ouster for years. When the Foley scandal broke, instead of joining the call for House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s resignation, Lieberman reached into his cultural-conservative portfolio and introduced a bill to require online pornography purveyors to run ID checks.

Lamont, for his part, needed to retool. For better or worse, the enduring image from primary night was of his giving a victory speech flanked by Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, which cuts two ways in a state divided between cities with large black populations and mostly white suburbs. Lamont needed to introduce himself anew to unaffiliated voters and Republicans for whom Lieberman is a household name and who, if they pay attention to Lamont at all, think of him as a one-issue antiwar candidate.

For several weeks, Lamont’s campaign–without the galvanizing summertime mission of coalescing long-simmering anti-Lieberman sentiment among Democrats–seemed to lose focus. “I enjoyed the primary a lot more,” Lamont confessed on a recent Saturday, after sending off volunteers to knock on doors in Norwalk. “It was grassroots. This phase of the campaign is more: I hit Joe, Joe hits back. Bare-knuckle stuff.” In Norwalk, Lamont–in shirtsleeves, sneakers and Brooks Brothers trousers–gave his volunteers a set of talking points, beginning not with the war but with the experience question: “If they say experience, you say results.” That’s a tough road: Lieberman has a reputation for bringing home the bacon when it comes to highway money and defense jobs, the only sector of Connecticut’s old industrial economy to survive. Persuading voters on “results” requires Lamont and his volunteers to make the perhaps too abstract case that Connecticut is actually forty-ninth in terms of the percentage of federal tax dollars returned to it; that the state’s share of homeland security funding has steadily dwindled since 9/11, despite two major harbors, a submarine base, an international airport and the greatest concentration of corporate headquarters outside Manhattan.

Joe Lieberman is universally recognized as the de facto GOP candidate in the race. The official Republican candidate, a state senator from Milford named Alan Schlesinger, was nominated as a sacrificial lamb back when Lieberman seemed invulnerable. Even before Lieberman’s independent run, GOP Governor Jodi Rell implored Schlesinger to step aside when reports of a massive gambling habit emerged in the press. Since then, GOP leaders and voters alike have written him off and turned to Lieberman. Every poll shows Lieberman drawing two-thirds of the state’s likely Republican voters; the latest Hartford Courant/University of Connecticut poll gives Schlesinger just 4 percent of Republican votes. In the poll even Lamont gets more GOP votes than that.

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.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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