With Senator Joseph Lieberman facing an increasingly tight primary fight, pro-Israel interest groups are stepping up their support for the former vice presidential candidate.
Lieberman will face Ned Lamont — a Greenwich, Conn., multimillionaire backed by party liberals unhappy with Lieberman’s support for the Iraq War and perceived coziness with Republicans — in Connecticut’s August 8 Democratic primary. While polls still predict that the three-term senator will win the contest handily, Lamont’s steadily rising poll numbers, as well as the low turnout projected for a midsummer election, has Lieberman supporters rallying to his defense.
“Given the recent turn of events, we have decided to become further engaged in this race,” Dr. Ben Chouake said. Chouake is president of Norpac, a nonpartisan, New Jersey-based political action committee that supports pro-Israel candidates. “We’re going to contact our membership in the area, see if they can organize some voting drives on the ground, as well as do additional fund raising for his campaign.”
Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, the head of the pro-Israel New York-based Hudson Valley Political Action Committee, told the Forward that “people are taking this race very seriously.” A former president and chairman of the Orthodox Union, Ganchrow added that he thinks Lieberman “understands that he’s in for a very tough race.”
A defeat in the primary could mean the end of a stellar, albeit up-and-down, political career that saw Lieberman, in 2000, become the first Jewish vice presidential candidate of a major party, only to be humbled four years later when his
presidential bid flopped early in the primaries. Lieberman’s hawkish views, as well as his willingness to criticize then-President Clinton over his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, helped the Connecticut senator develop his trademark reputation as a political centrist who has a fierce independent streak. In recent months, however, his reputation as a hawk who will work with Republicans has increasingly appeared like a significant handicap heading into the August primary.
Lamont, 52, founder of a cable company, who has donated $1.5 million to his own Democratic bid, has chipped away at Lieberman’s sizable lead in recent weeks. He now trails the senator 57%-32% among Democrats, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released June 8. In contrast, an identical poll conducted by Quinnipiac on May 2 showed Lieberman leading 65% to 19%.
The Lamont-Lieberman race has emerged as one of the most closely watched primaries in the country, in large part because unseating Lieberman, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, has emerged as a priority among activists on the left. MoveOn.org — the Web-based liberal organization whose fund-raising efforts gave wings to Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004 — decided to support the Lamont campaign after it held a mock primary on the Internet last month.
In recent weeks, as the Lamont-Lieberman race has heated up, politicos have considered the possibility that Lieberman may run for Senate as an independent, either in order to forgo the primary entirely or to keep a general election race alive in the event of a primary loss.
Even if he runs as an independent in the general election, Lieberman — who commands support from GOP voters — is projected to win easily, with 56% of the vote, compared with 18% for Lamont and 8% for Republican Alan Schlesinger, according to Quinnipiac University’s June 8 poll.
In order to run as an independent, the senator would have to collect 7,500 signatures from registered voters by 4 p.m. August 9, the day after the Democratic primary. Lieberman is not prohibited from running in the Democratic primary and then petitioning as an independent candidate. He recently told reporters that he is “not going to close out any options.”
Some political observers and supporters warn that keeping the Democratic and independent options open simultaneously makes Lieberman appear weak.
“He’s a man of great principle, and I think he made one tactical political error in this campaign, in that he said, or implied, that he would run as independent… if he didn’t win the primary,” said Ganchrow, head of New York-based Huvpac. Ganchrow added, “He’s a pro, and he just should have said nothing.”
Ganchrow said that Huvpac had not yet made a contribution to the Lieberman campaign because until recently, its leaders didn’t think that Lieberman was in any trouble. After recent polls showed Lamont gaining in popularity, its members have decided to make a donation.
Norpac’s director, Chouake, said that his political action committee also had decided to step up its support after the recent poll numbers were released.
In the event that Lieberman runs as an independent in the general election, Ganchrow and Chouake both said that they personally would still support him.
Morris Amitay, founder of the pro-Israel Washington Political Action Committee said his committee already had donated the legal limit to the Lieberman campaign and would support him in the event of an independent candidacy.
Senator Charles Schumer of New York –– who has signaled his support for Lieberman –– did not respond to the Forward’s questions about whether he would support the Connecticut lawmaker if he runs in the general election as an independent. Schumer, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has upset liberal bloggers by failing to state unequivocally that the party will back Lamont if he wins the primary and Lieberman runs as an independent.
Although Lieberman still has the overwhelming support of Connecticut’s Democratic establishment, Lamont recently won the endorsement of George Jepsen, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party. Former independent governor Lowell Weicker, who was a Republican when he lost his Senate seat to Lieberman in 1988, also has endorsed Lamont. Weicker co-chaired a fund-raiser for Lamont last week.
In what some observers describe as a sign that Lieberman is feeling the heat from Lamont’s candidacy, the senator’s campaign launched a Web-based advertisement last week that used a cartoon to depict Lamont as a bear cub out to do Weicker’s bidding. It was a play on an advertisement that Lieberman used 18 years ago, during his first Senate run, which accused Weicker of being in “hibernation” because he missed a series of Senate votes.