Following the narrow but bruising defeat of Senator Joseph Lieberman in Connecticut’s Democratic primary Tuesday, the former vice presidential candidate appears to be receiving limited support from fellow Jewish lawmakers in his bid to carry on as an independent. Jewish Republicans, meanwhile, are rushing to paint Lieberman’s defeat as a victory for anti-Israel forces in the Democratic Party.
Jewish members in the Senate and the House of Representatives are now voicing support for the winner of Tuesday’s primary, Greenwich businessman Ned Lamont, including lawmakers who had been supporting Lieberman. As of Wednesday morning, Rep. Brad Sherman of California was the only one out of 37 Jewish members of Congress who told the Forward that he would be supporting Lieberman’s independent bid. Many lawmakers did not return calls seeking comment.
At the same time, the Jewish Democrats seemed divided more generally over whether Lieberman’s primary loss and his independent candidacy would help or hinder their party’s nationwide efforts to take back Congress in November. Some argued that Tuesday’s results in Connecticut represented an anti-incumbent upsurge that would boost Democrats in the general elections. Sherman and others, on the other hand, worried that Lieberman’s loss would make the party vulnerable to Republican charges of extremism.
“I think it’s critical that those in moderate positions not be purged by either party,” Sherman said in an interview with the Forward. “Repudiating, excluding or shunning people like Lieberman just sends a terrible signal to people who… we’re now trying to bring over to the Democratic Party.”
An independent run by Lieberman, Sherman added, could help the Democrats beat three vulnerable Connecticut Republicans in the House of Representatives — Nancy Johnson, Christopher Shays and Rob Simmons — by turning out moderate and independent voters who otherwise might sit out the midterm elections.
In an interview two weeks ago, Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat who is leading his party’s efforts to raise Jewish money for House candidates, also told the Forward that he worried about the impact of a Lieberman loss.
“Strategically, I would imagine that Karl Rove is enjoying every minute of this,” Israel said during a conference call he held with Jewish bloggers July 27. “Instead of focusing on beating two, maybe three, Republican House members, we’re killing each other.” Despite such sentiments, Israel issued a statement Wednesday that praised Lieberman but said he would now be backing Lamont.
On the other side of the debate, some vocal Jewish critics of the Bush administration, including Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, were clearly emboldened by Lieberman’s primary defeat.
“This is a warning sign of the danger of being too close… with George Bush,” Emanuel said during a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning. “The voters have rejected a stay-the-course mentality. They want a new direction.”
Emanuel added that the Lieberman loss, coupled with the Tuesday defeat of two other congressional incumbents — Rep. Cynthia McKinney, a leftwing Georgia Democrat, and Rep. Joe Schwarz, a moderate Michigan Republican — signaled a high level of anti-incumbent fervor that is “a flashing red light for the Republican Party because they have more incumbents than we do.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition, a Washington-based group, announced Wednesday that it would mount a national advertising campaign in Jewish newspapers that would attempt to paint Lamont’s victory as a troubling loss for Israel.
“Joe Lieberman was a voice of support for Israel,” the RJC ad says. “That voice has been silenced by the Democratic Party. America and Israel are worse off for it.”
The RJC is also touting a Los Angeles Times poll released last week, which found that Republicans were significantly more likely than Democrats to believe that the United States should align with Israel instead of adopting a more neutral posture. Democrats supported neutrality over alignment, 54%-39%, while Republicans supported alignment with the Jewish state 64%-29%. In response to the RJC ads, Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Coalition, accused the RJC of employing “the cheapest of partisan politics.”
“They’ve used Lieberman as a whipping boy in the past, now they’re suddenly pro-Lieberman?” Forman said, adding that the RJC ran a full-page ad critical of Lieberman in 2000.
While the NJDC does not endorse candidates, Forman said that he did not rule out the possibility that the NJDC’s political action committee would endorse Lieberman.
Lamont has voiced repeatedly his support for Israel during the current fighting with Hezbollah, telling the Forward that he disagreed with the European Union’s declaration criticizing Israel’s actions as a “disproportionate” response, and with calls for an immediate, unconditional cease-fire.
In the last days of the primary campaign, Lieberman’s closest backers have painted some of Lamont’s supporters as anti-Israel and antisemitic. After the primary defeat, a senior Lieberman aide told The New Republic that the senator’s campaign was expecting to raise a good deal of money from Jewish and pro-Israel donors. The article also quoted a senior aide dismissing the importance of Democratic endorsements for Lamont: “A bunch of Democrats out of obligation will endorse Lamont … and then head for the hills.” Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic strategist who says he counts himself among Lieberman’s supporters, predicted that the senator probably would stay in the race.
“I think a few days ago, people thought that Lieberman could be pushed to get out, especially if he lost by a lot,” Rabinowitz said. “But I think he’s clearly staying in.”
“The people who support Lieberman as an independent Democrat can do so only because they feel free of future ramifications, which means that they’re not vulnerable to a future primary battle,” Rabinowitz added. “That’s why every future Democratic presidential candidate is going to support Lamont.”
Two likely Democratic contenders in 2008, Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and New York Senator Hillary Clinton, have said that they would back the primary winner. Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat and chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, had backed Lieberman but says that he will accept the verdict of primary voters.
“Party is very important these days,” Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts said in an interview with the Forward. “With the Republican Party having moved so far to the right, and being so ideologically cohesive, I think Democrats have to be, frankly, kind of united in self-defense.”
“It is legitimate for people to take the Iraq war into account and other issues,” Frank said. In effect, the Lieberman camp has been “saying that it’s wrong to vote against someone because you disagree with them. Well, why else would you vote for or against him? I do think this appears to be a campaign on some fundamental issues.”
Others, including Pennsylvania Rep. Allyson Schwartz, who backed the Connecticut senator, have said that they now feel obliged to support the Democratic nominee.
“Congressman Schwartz is a strong supporter of Senator Lieberman, and she believes that he is the best candidate for the state,” Schwartz spokesperson Rachel Magnuson said. “That said, the Congresswoman will support… the Democratic nominee.”