Liberal Assault on Joe Could Hurt Democrats in Other Senate Races

By E.J. Kessler

Published July 14, 2006.
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Some Democrats are nervous that if Senator Joseph Lieberman loses his primary to an antiwar challenger, thousands of hawkish Jewish Democrats who see the Connecticut lawmaker as their standard-bearer will either abandon the party or sit out the November election.

That, say several political observers, could make the difference in some hard-fought Senate races — including contests in Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — that Democrats must win in order to have any hope of taking back the Senate this year.

“Tons of activist Jewish Dems could be really bitter about it,” a Washington strategist with close ties to the Democratic leadership said of the prospect of a Lieberman primary loss to Connecticut cable company executive Ned Lamont. “Observant Jews could stay home. They won’t vote in those races.”

Even if Lieberman wins, some of the sentiment unleashed by the anti-Lieberman campaign might make Jewish voters feel uncomfortable. Lamont, a largely self-funded millionaire candidate from Greenwich, catapulted to prominence as the head of an Internet-based faction that long has inveighed against Lieberman for his support of the Iraq war. Support — and donations — for Lamont have built across a string of left-leaning blogs, such as Daily Kos, MyDD and Huffington Post, on which comments posted about Lieberman sometimes wax vitriolic.

Many of these diatribes have raised the specter of dual loyalty, attacking him for supporting Israel. (Here’s a flavor of such rhetoric, from a reader of Huffington Post: “Has anyone considered that the loyalties Rabbi Joseph Lieberman is talking about, is to Israel, where he is also a citizen. The Rabbi believes that going into Iraq is good for the security of Israel and that is why he has steadfastly supported this immoral and illegal war.”)

The left-leaning antiwar “net roots,” locked in an internecine feud with “establishment” Washington Democrats, have swung behind dozens of challengers across the nation, with scant success. In Lieberman, they are hoping for a high-profile scalp.

It remains to be seen whether Lamont, whose previous experience in elected office came in the 1980s, when he served as a town selectman, can actually win. But, some observers say, the fallout of from the campaign could affect other races.

In Maryland, several Democrats, including Rep. Ben Cardin and former NAACP head Kweisi Mfume, are vying for the nod to run for the seat being vacated by Democratic Senator Paul Sarbanes. The winner will face Republican Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele. Polls in that race show a Democrat leading, although not by much.

In New Jersey, Senator Bob Menendez, recently tapped for the seat vacated by Governor Jon Corzine, is locked in a single-digit race with Tom Kean Jr. In Pennsylvania, Democratic State Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. is seeking to oust incumbent GOP Senator Rick Santorum, who trails him by about a dozen points in a race that is expected to tighten.

In each of those states, Jewish voters are prized as a reliable, high-turnout Democratic group — an essential part of any winning coalition.

Conservatives are already salivating at the prospect of an exodus of Democratic hawks.

“I hope the Republicans will be smart enough to scoop up what is sure to come — yet another wave of disaffected Democrats looking for a political home,” wrote New York Times columnist David Brooks. The neoconservative Weekly Standard featured as part of its July 17 cover package, an article titled “Purging Lieberman,” a swipe at the liberal efforts to unseat the Connecticut senator.

Some Democrats discounted the notion that the disaffection of Jewish “Lieberman Democrats” will affect any races. “I haven’t heard that,” said the chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, Terry Lerman. Lerman said that Steele is “shallow” on the issues of concern to Marylanders, including and especially the state’s Jews, and so “is not going to get a free pass.”

Even so, Lieberman’s increasingly tough race and his vow to mount an independent bid if he is defeated in the primary has sparked some interesting maneuvering among Democrats. Some of Lieberman’s Senate colleagues who seek to court the net roots — such as likely 2008 presidential contender Hillary Clinton of New York — have distanced themselves to a degree from Lieberman, endorsing him in the primary while saying that they will support the choice of Connecticut’s Democrats in the general election.

Lieberman’s pal Senator Charles Schumer of New York — the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — has staunchly refused to go as far as Clinton, declaring on “Meet the Press” this week that “we’re doing everything we can to help” Lieberman and refusing “to speculate on what happens after the primary.” Lieberman has promised to align himself with the Democrats if he ends up winning as an independent.

In an interview with The New York Observer, Schumer castigated the bloggers’ anti-Lieberman crusade. “It’s money that could go to a better place,” he said. “Because even if you are vehemently opposed to the war, my argument would be that taking back the Senate is the best thing we can do. We have more effect changing the course that way.”

The possibility that a Lieberman primary loss might damage Democrats’ Senate prospects more generally appears to be driving some of Lieberman’s colleagues to campaign for him. Senator Barbara Boxer of California — a staunch Iraq war foe — recently hit the hustings with Lieberman.

Others, however, will sit out the contest. The executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Ira Forman, said that his group and its political action committee could not choose sides in the primary contest because of its tax status. “NJDC Pac never endorses in primaries, but that doesn’t mean that individuals don’t have their preference,” Forman said.

Lieberman Democrats warn of dark days ahead.

“What the blogger community is doing in Connecticut is going to hurt the party — that’s axiomatic,” said Democratic fundraiser Michael Granoff, a longtime Lieberman supporter from New Jersey. “If the message is, ‘There’s no room for Joe Lieberman in the Democratic Party,’ that means a whole lot of people are not welcome there. People are disgusted.”

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