Connecticut Senate: Can Joe Lieberman Really Win?

August 21, 2006 · 12:02 AM EDT

When Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman announced on primary night that he was going to run for reelection as an Independent, I was a little surprised. The closeness of the contest obviously encouraged supporters of the senator to think that he could win a three-way race, and the senator himself clearly was buoyed by the relative narrowness of his defeat.

Still, I knew some Democrats – friends of the senator – had encouraged him to pause for a moment before committing himself to an Independent candidacy, and I figured that Lieberman might well hold off on a full-scale announcement for a day or two, even if he ultimately chose to compete in the general election.

Lieberman says that he is in the race for good, and he sure sounds as if he isn’t joking. He’s putting together a new consulting team and has already aired a new TV spot explaining why he is running as an Independent against Democratic nominee Ned Lamont in the fall election.

Veteran campaign watchers expected that Lieberman’s primary loss would make early polling that showed him holding a big lead in the general election largely irrelevant. A loss would shatter the inevitability of an eventual Lieberman victory and send some Democratic loyalists running over to the Lamont column.

Lamont’s primary win surely boosted his prospects, but neutral observers have been too skeptical of Lieberman’s ability to win in November. The first couple of post-primary polls show Lieberman running even or ahead of Lamont, and there is more than enough reason to believe that Lieberman has a realistic chance to win in November.

Lieberman isn’t some crackpot Independent who has nothing better to do than run a three-month campaign. In fact, the Connecticut Democrat has all of the assets of other successful Independent candidates.

Most statewide Third Party and Independent candidates fail because they lack name identification, campaign funds, credibility and electability. Lieberman has all four.

Democratic strategists suggest that Lieberman will need about $8 million for the general election. He begins with about $2 million in the bank and the ability to raise millions more from past supporters. Veteran fundraisers express little doubt in the senator’s ability to raise another $6 million for the race.

Lieberman’s support from within the Jewish and pro-Israel communities remains extremely strong, even among liberal Democrats who would seem to agree with Lamont’s liberal views.

Lieberman’s narrow loss, combined with his showing in post-primary polling and his appeal among Republicans and the state’s huge Independent vote, surely establish the senator as a credible candidate for reelection.

A huge 44 percent of Connecticut’s registered voters are unaffiliated, and with a weak Republican nominee on the ballot, there is no reason to believe that Lieberman can’t score well enough with both of those groups to overcome Lamont’s advantage among Democratic voters.

Lieberman’s problem isn’t money, name identification or credibility. His position on the war and the perception that he has grown distant from the state obviously hurt him in the primary, and it is a mistake to assume that he won’t lose some Independents and Republicans over those same concerns.

But the senator’s campaign has been a big problem. It was terrible in the primary, and if it doesn’t improve substantially, he probably can’t win.

Lieberman has not yet picked his new consulting team, but he has already made a number of campaign staff changes. We’ll all have to wait to see how the new team functions. [Editor's Note: Since this column was written, Lieberman hired media consultant Josh Isay of KnickerbockerSKD and pollster Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies.]

One thing that probably doesn’t matter is the flurry of Congressional endorsements that Lamont received after the primary. Endorsements from Senators Chris Dodd, Chuck Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t help Lieberman win his primary, and it’s hard to see them as guaranteeing a Lamont victory in November.

Lieberman appears to have retained endorsements from Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign and the League of Conservation Voters. And some state, local and national officeholders who endorsed the Senator initially will continue to back him. But he won’t win because of endorsements.

If Lieberman wins, it will be because he successfully taps voters’ frustration with the polarization that so many observers and real people complain about. Voters say they like candidates who are independent and real. We will now have a chance to see whether they mean what they say.

But Lieberman may have one other asset: Lamont.

I don’t know whether Lamont planned to surround himself on primary night with Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, but that live TV shot during the winner’s acceptance speech surely could cost the Democratic nominee some support among Independents. And it certainly reminded Lieberman supporters why their preferred the Senator and needed to work to defeat Lamont.

It is true that Lieberman doesn’t have one of the two major party lines on which to run in the fall. But Lowell Weicker didn’t have one of those lines either when he won the Nutmeg State’s governorship in 1990. Lieberman must run an inherently unconventional campaign if he has any chance of winning. And if he runs a good one, he certainly can win.

This column first appeard on RealClearPolitics on August 18, 2006.