Lieberman Is Defeated in Primary

Times Staff Writer

Sen. Joe Lieberman, who angered Democratic voters with his staunch support of the war in Iraq, on Tuesday narrowly lost his party’s nomination to Ned Lamont, an antiwar candidate who was unknown seven months ago.

Lieberman is only the fourth incumbent senator to lose his party’s nomination since 1980. He promised to run for a fourth term as an independent candidate. Looking out at his supporters Tuesday night, he beamed and raised a fist defiantly in the air.

“The old politics of polarization won today,” he said. “For the sake of our state, our country and my party, I cannot and will not let that result stand.”


The race, initially predicted as a blowout victory for Lieberman, became a lesson in how the war in Iraq has reshaped partisan politics. In Lamont’s headquarters, a jubilant crowd celebrated an upset win that, last year, would not have seemed possible.

Lamont thanked Lieberman for “the grace and dignity with which he has served our state for many years,” and vowed to act as an agent for change.

“Some call Connecticut ‘the land of steady habits.’ Connecticut voters do not call for change lightly, but today we called for change decisively,” he said. “No more ‘stay the course.’ Stay the course is not a winning strategy in Iraq, and it is not a winning strategy in America.”

Lamont, a wealthy cable executive, led Lieberman by less than four percentage points, with 51.8% of the vote to Lieberman’s 48.2% with 99% of precincts reporting. Several of his supporters -- among them Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) -- said they hoped Lamont’s win would prove to be a transforming moment for the Democratic Party.

“I believe this is the most significant election of all the Democrats that are running,” Waters said. Many elected officials, she said, “could not bring themselves to stand up against this war because they thought they didn’t have public support. Ned Lamont’s courage will give courage to a lot of people.”

As the race drew national attention this summer, nearly 30,000 new voters either registered as Democrats or switched their registration for the chance to vote in the primary. Turnout was close to 40%, which is 15 percentage points higher than the previous recorded turnout for a Connecticut primary.

An independent Lieberman campaign will force an awkward choice for state Democratic leaders: fully shift their support to the novice politician who has the party’s backing, or stick with Lieberman. They must make that decision before 11 a.m. today, when Democrats will gather for a public “unity meeting,” said Steven Donen, a consultant and Lieberman supporter.

“Do they appear with [Lamont] jointly? Do they raise money for him?” Donen asked. “Don’t you support your friends through thick and thin, no matter what?”

Leslie O’Brien, a past executive director of the state Democratic Party, said there was no question that Democrats would embrace Lamont; the question is “how warmly.” George Jepsen, a former chair of the state party who worked with Lamont’s campaign, said he expected the shift to go smoothly.

“I’ve had people who have come up to me and said, ‘George, I’ll write him a check on Aug. 9,’ ” he said.

A year ago, Lieberman was considered so popular and well-financed that no established Democrat could be induced to run against him. Lamont officially declared his candidacy in March, five months before the primary. In January, when he began campaigning against Lieberman, his statewide name recognition was 4%, campaign manager Tom Swan said.

Lamont, 52, poured $2.5 million of his own money into launching the campaign and paid dozens of visits to small-town Democrats whose frustration with Lieberman was building. The challenger’s vigorous, plain-spoken broadsides against the war attracted the attention of progressive activists and bloggers.

From the beginning, most prospective Lamont voters said they were supporting him out of dislike for Lieberman. In a Quinnipiac University poll released Monday, 54% of Lamont voters said that was the main reason they support him.

“Not to say anything bad about the Lamont campaign,” said Kenneth Dautrich, a public policy professor at the University of Connecticut, “but this has always been about Lieberman.”

Lieberman became a Democratic star in the ‘90s, a time when the party worried about losing touch with an increasingly conservative electorate.

The son of a liquor store owner in Stamford, Conn., Lieberman began running for office as a high school student and never stopped. At Yale University, he wrote an admiring senior thesis on John M. Bailey, Connecticut’s cigar-chewing political boss whose motto was “You gotta do what you gotta do.”

Lieberman, 64, is an Orthodox Jew who has observed the Sabbath throughout his career, refraining from driving, writing or talking on the telephone. A mild-mannered figure in the Senate, he took stands on moral issues -- he chastised Hollywood for glamorizing sex and violence -- and won high marks in the labor and environmental movements. Alongside an old friend, Bill Clinton, he cultivated a reputation as a centrist.

Lieberman was the first non-Southern U.S. senator to endorse Clinton in 1992. But six years later, he became President Clinton’s most prominent Democratic critic, siding increasingly with the GOP on issues such as fundraising tactics. In 1998, he rebuked the president in the thick of the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal, calling Clinton’s behavior “immoral and harmful.” He was the first Democrat to do so.

Democrats’ grievances against Lieberman have mounted since then. Many in the party resent the fact that he did not drop out of the race for his Senate seat in 2000, when Al Gore selected him as a vice presidential running mate; others are angry that he backed Republican efforts to prevent the removal of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube, or that he voted to prevent a Democratic filibuster of Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

But the fundamental complaint from liberals has been Lieberman’s support of the war in Iraq, which seemed to grow stronger as other Democrats lined up against it. In December, he chided President Bush’s critics, saying that “in matters of war we undermine presidential credibility at our nation’s peril.” He was one of six Democrats this summer to vote against a resolution calling for U.S. forces to begin leaving Iraq this year.

Lieberman’s friendly relationship with Republicans became the Lamont campaign’s favorite emblem. Lamont’s supporters wear buttons portraying “the Kiss” -- a moment when Lieberman embraced Bush after his 2005 State of the Union address. And a television advertisement aired this summer showed Lieberman’s face morphing into Bush’s as an announcer intoned, “If it sounds like George W. Bush, and acts like George W. Bush, it’s certainly not a Connecticut Democrat.”

When Democrats convened in May to nominate a candidate, Lamont won 33% of the delegates, more than twice what he needed to force Lieberman into a primary race. Tom Matzzie, the executive director of Move Political Action, said activists found themselves “in the right place at the right time” in a year when MoveOn members’ priorities -- the war in Iraq, healthcare, energy and “standing up to Bush” -- aligned with the concerns of Connecticut voters.

Marshall Wittman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, who supports Lieberman, said Lamont has allowed himself to be defined by his left-wing supporters.

“Had it not been for the involvement of the Democratic left, the party would be fairly united going into midterm elections,” he said. “The Lamont campaign can be potentially devastating to the party, not in 2006, but in 2008. At a time of horrific news for the Republican Party, this is the only silver lining they have right now.”

Although shades of regret seemed to flicker across the face of Lieberman’s wife, Hadassah, Lieberman was upbeat about his independent run. Polls have showed he has strong support among independent and Republican voters, and could win a three-way race.

“I’m a sports fan, so I’ll use a sports comparison,” he said. “As I see it, in this campaign, we’ve just finished the first half, and the Lamont team is ahead, but in the second half, our team -- Team Connecticut -- is going to surge forward to victory.”

Kenneth Fellenbaum stood for a while not far from the stage after Lieberman and his family had filed out.

“It is sad,” said Fellenbaum, 57, who is a Republican. “Here’s a man who was his party’s nominee for vice president, who served three terms in the Senate, and to have somebody with no experience come up, with one issue -- this obviously is a travesty.”

Times staff writer Richard Simon in Washington and special correspondent Matthew O’Rourke in Hartford contributed to this report.