David Frum compares the Republican primary fight between Arlen Specter and Pat Toomey to the 2006 Democratic primary between Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont:
In the Connecticut example, Democrats escaped lightly from the Lamont blunder. Instead of delivering the seat to the Republicans, Lieberman ran as an independent Democrat and won, and since then has voted more or less along the Democratic party line. In Pennyslvania, by contrast, the defeat of Specter almost certainly will mean the loss of both Pennsylvania Senates to the Democrats for a generation.
Frum might be right about Specter-Toomey — I’ll get to that in another post — though it is premature to write both Pennsylvania Senate seats off “for a generation.” But having done some coverage of the 2006 Connecticut Senate race, I’m quite sure he’s wrong about Lieberman-Lamont. Or, more precisely, Lamont-Schlesinger.
Very early after Lamont won the primary, it was clear that the general-election math favored Lieberman. Lieberman was winning among Republicans and independents while holding on to a critical mass of Democrats. Sure enough, on election day exit polls showed Lieberman winning 70 percent of Republicans, 54 percent of independents, and 33 percent of Democrats. The fact that Democrats were a slight plurality of those who turned out (38 percent) was the only thing that kept Lamont (who carried 65 percent of them) in the race.
Lieberman was uniquely positioned to unite the center and right while leaving Lamont isolated on the left. He won independents and 55 percent of moderates. People who were nonideological and not making a judgment call on the Republican Congress also tended to vote Lieberman. But his support among the Republican base was overwhelming. In addition to winning 70 percent of Republicans, Lieberman took 66 percent of conservatives, 55 percent of weekly and more-than-weekly churchgoers, 76 percent (!) of voters who wanted Republicans to control the Senate, and 72 percent of voters who supported George W. Bush.
But if Lieberman hadn’t run as an independent, the picture changes dramatically. The same weak Republican candidate who allowed Lieberman, on the basis of very few issues, to come in and gobble up the GOP vote would have gotten clobbered by Lamont in the general election. Lamont’s antiwar views were not out of the mainstream in Connecticut. Overall, 66 percent of voters disapproved of the Iraq war (49 percent strongly disapproved) while only 33 percent approved. On the question of whether the U.S should withdraw some or all troops, the voters were 63 percent to 31 percent in favor of withdrawal. Only 15 percent said “send more.”
Not all Connecticut voters shared Lamont’s (or the netroots’) intensity on the issue, which is why Lieberman did better among strong supporters of the Iraq war and Bush anti-terrorism policies than Lamont generally did among voters who opposed them. But the point is that Lamont’s views wouldn’t have been a barrier to him winning the election. In a two-way race, Republican Alan Schlesinger would have surely gotten more than 21 percent of the Republican vote and an equal percentage of the conservative vote. But he would have been hard pressed to win Lieberman’s nonideological support and would have lost to Ned Lamont.
The moral of the story? There are two: 1.) Let’s not let certain Republicans blame all the party’s problems on abortion or social conservatism, which they don’t care about, while ignoring the unpopularity of the Iraq war, which they fervently supported; 2.) Sometimes a creative or lucky candidate, like Lieberman in 2006, can turn what all the polls say is a losing issue into a winner on election day.
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