WASHINGTON – Sen. Joe
Lieberman's stunning loss in Connecticut's Democratic
primary to a little-known political newcomer has
significant ramifications for the already heated battle
this fall for control of Congress.
Despite Republican hopes that their candidates would be
able to wage each campaign on local issues that would
allow them to stress the largesse they have brought home,
it is now clear that Democrats have successfully
“nationalized” the election, meaning that more of the key
races will be determined by voter views of President Bush
and his conduct of the war in Iraq.
Given the deep unpopularity of the president and the
war, that is sobering news for Republicans, even on a day
they were publicly celebrating liberal Ned Lamont's win
over Lieberman as proof of what they call the
radicalization of the Democratic Party.
In Ohio, Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman said
the vote exposes the Democrats as the party of
“isolationism, defeatism and a 'blame America first'
attitude,” one that no longer has room for security-minded
moderates like Lieberman.
Independent analyst Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the
Rothenberg Political Report, acknowledged that “there
is some danger of an open rift” in the Democratic Party.
“But for the next three months the focus is going to be on
George Bush and whether people are happy with the
direction of the country. November is not going to be a
referendum on Ned Lamont or the Democratic Party.”
Lieberman's loss to Lamont signals that the
polarization of American politics is intensifying. It
proclaims a coming of age of the activist “netroots” and
bloggers who now can claim their first real win and have
issued a warning to any other Democrats who are seen as
too cozy with the Bush White House or stray too far from
Democrats, led by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of
Nevada and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, chairman of
the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, closed ranks
behind Lamont yesterday and called his victory a road map
for success in the fall congressional elections.
Tuesday's voting also highlighted Bush's political
vulnerability and dramatically displayed the
anti-incumbent mood of voters as Lieberman was joined in
defeat by incumbent House members in Michigan and Georgia.
“There is a surly mood out there,” said Charles Cook, a
veteran independent political analyst in Washington. “The
natives are restless and they are willing to lash out.”
Lieberman was the biggest victim. His fall from power
has been precipitous: Only six years after making history
as the first Jewish nominee for vice president, Lieberman
stands today as the first incumbent senator in 26 years to
be rejected in his party's primary.
But he was not the only victim. In Georgia, Democratic
Rep. Cynthia McKinney was soundly defeated in her primary,
though the reason was distinctly local – continuing
embarrassment over her antics and at-times-bizarre
statements. More telling was the outcome in Michigan's 7th
District, where one-term Republican moderate Rep. Joe
Schwarz was ousted by a conservative who hammered Schwarz
for embracing Bush's immigration proposal.
“The message is you had better stick with your tribe,”
said Larry Sabato, director of the University of
Virginia's Center for Politics. “We have incumbents tossed
out on their ear because they are insufficiently pure. So
the polarization of American politics continues and
Democratic strategist Mark Mellman said Lieberman could
not escape his reputation as Bush's favorite Democrat in
Washington, a reputation hammered home in the campaign by
frequent showings of a picture of the senator and
president embracing and kissing at the State of the Union
“The activist core of the Democratic Party has been
very disaffected from a party that they think has been too
accommodationist and too capitulationist vis-a-vis Bush,”
Mellman said. “Joe Lieberman allowed himself to become a
symbol of accommodation at a time when that was an
anathema to the party. That is the main lesson here. And
frankly, that doesn't bode well for Bush.”
Mellman predicted only a slight effect on the party
despite the anguish of party centrists in the Democratic
Leadership Council, which Lieberman helped found to steer
Democrats away from the left.
“There isn't going to be a civil war in the party,” he
said. “What it does tell you is the antipathy to Bush is a
huge motivating factor. It is true among Democrats and it
is true among independents.”
John Mueller, who holds the Woody Hayes Chair of
National Security Studies at Ohio State University and is
an expert on public opinion in wartime, said the
Connecticut outcome leaves no doubt about the direction of
public opinion on Iraq.
“It confirmed the power of Iraq as an issue,” he said.
“For Democrats it is really a deeply emotional issue and
tied to the distrust and even hatred of George Bush.”
And for independents and a growing number of
Republicans, the disaffection is strong.
“They see just no way out,” Mueller said. “It is just
hopeless, a disaster, a debacle, a fiasco – whatever you
want to call it – and more and more people are agreeing
Politically, that means “Republicans are going to get
spanked,” Rothenberg said. “The question is how badly.”