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There's No Security In Incumbency

This column was written by Thomas Schaller.

A day before the Connecticut Senate primary, Paola Roy was still struggling with how she would cast her vote. Then she happened to stumble into Joe Lieberman at one of the senator's final campaign stops, in the small town of Southington.

Roy immigrated to the United States from Sicily in 1971, and not until the early 1990s did she go through the process of gaining her citizenship. She lives in Plantsville, a small hamlet next to Southington, both of which are home to significant Italian-American and French-American populations. With an Italian first name and French surname courtesy of her late husband, this longtime state employee and mother of two was a useful barometer for Lieberman's support in this largely working-class area 20 miles southwest of Hartford. If he hoped to thwart Greenwich businessman Ned Lamont's surging primary challenge, Lieberman needed to close the sale with voters like Roy.

After chatting with folks at a dozen tables inside Anthony Jack's restaurant, Lieberman was angling toward his campaign bus when Roy cornered him. She had voted for him during his last two re-elections, but was having serious reservations this time around and let him know it. Her big issue? Nope, not Iraq: It was the fate of working folks like herself.

"The rich have the tax shelters and the poor have the programs, but there's nothing for the rest of us in between," she told Lieberman, who listened intently with fellow Democratic senator Chris Dodd at his side. He assured her he understood how important the middle class was to the backbone of the country, and spoke of his opposition to President Bush's tax cuts.

"I came out of the middle class, so I know what you're talking about and, being a senator, I haven't gone much beyond the middle class," he said, as a gesture of solidarity that perhaps, compared to Lamont's wealth, made some sense, but still left Roy rather unimpressed. "I won't let you down on those questions, and I know I can do more than the other guy."

Lieberman scooted toward the bus to head to a Little League baseball event in Bristol, as sign-waving supporters dutifully chanted the incumbent's closing campaign theme: "Vote for who you know, JOE!" From top to bottom, the Lieberman campaign remained vigilantly on message in the final days, as everyone from campaign spokespeople to Lieberman's 38-year-old son Matt expressed the belief that enough late-deciding voters would pause, ask themselves if they were really prepared to no longer be represented by Lieberman, and give the senator the benefit of their doubts. "A lot of [Lamont's] support is about sending a message to me," Lieberman told me, noting that he'd "gotten the message."

As the Lieberman bus departed, I tracked down Roy. "I feel that it shouldn't take a close election to show any candidate that they need to listen to what the people who put them in office want," she said. "It should take knowing what's right and doing what's right, not just a close election and now all of a sudden it's 'OK, I've learned.' That part worries me." She headed home, still mulling her decision.

The voices and votes of people like Paola Roy are the ones that may haunt Lieberman for years to come now that his political career has gone from critical condition to death-bed watch following his four-point primary defeat to Lamont. But if such constituent complaints are sure to ring in his head in future meditations on how this whole mess happened, as of last night, when he delivered his grudging concession speech, it was clear that Lieberman still wasn't listening. "The old politics of polarization won," he said, in announcing that on Wednesday, he would file the paperwork with the required signatures to continue his bid to keep the seat by running as an independent. "For the sake of our state, our country and my party, I will not let that result stand."

Whether it was scripted that way or not, the switch in Lieberman's language — from first-person plural when referring to state and country to the first-person singular possessive of "my party" — is a window into the mindset of a senator who has repeatedly demonstrated his sense of political entitlement. By the next morning, the same man who was complaining about partisan polarization was taking cheap shots at Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters on CNN. Apparently, when Lieberman frets about party polarization, he means the polarization within his own party that he has helped create. It's Joe's party — and he can cry if he wants to.

Lamont exhibited far more graciousness — the luxury of any winner. To add a nail in Lieberman's electoral coffin, Lamont spoke of Lieberman in the past tense, thanking the senator for his service to the state in his victory speech in Meriden.

For the rest of the country and the 2006 midterm elections, there are two major implications of Lamont's victory. First, supporters of the war in all but the most conservative districts and states had better take caution. The war provided the impetus for Lamont's challenge. But there is a second and far more mundane lesson: Taking one's constituents for granted is a dangerous business — incumbency's money and power are actually not a substitute for having a proper campaign assembled for re-election if and when a challenger comes after you.

Before the Lamont challenge materialized, Lieberman could have raised a few million dollars to scare away potential challengers, run a perfunctory radio and television campaign, and taken a quick tour across the state and still coasted to renomination and re-election. By the time it became clear that, instead of phoning in his re-election effort from Washington, Lieberman would need to hustle back home and start phone banking Democratic voters, it was too late. Building a field plan and executing takes time — the one commodity that all the money, pork-barrel projects, and national name recognition simply cannot buy.

Indeed, by the late stages of the campaign the Lieberman team chose to abandon some of its desperate, late-stage, paid get-out-the-vote plan in favor of having more money for persuasion ads on TV and radio. Lieberman was simply too far behind and had too little time to close the distance. The long-winded senator had been caught short-handed.

The big question now is whether Lieberman will stick to his pledge — a threat, really — to run as an independent. Given how quickly his support cratered in the primary, Lieberman ought to think twice before doubling down for a three-way contest that includes Republican Alan Schlesinger. His odds may be better at the blackjack tables at the state's Mohegan Sun casino. Yet, for now at least, Lieberman appears determined to ignore Tuesday's result and plunge forward, regardless of what lessons or messages (if any) he has taken from this defeat.

Bill Clinton once mused that a certain number of Americans will always find "strong and wrong" more appealing than right but weak. Lieberman is not alone among Democrats who either overestimated Saddam Hussein's threat before the war or underestimated the challenges of establishing peace in Iraq. But he began to isolate himself for not showing the courage to hold either himself or President Bush accountable for errors of omission in selling the war and commission in managing it. Lieberman proved himself to be wrong and weak — a self-imperiling combination if ever there was one.

Lamont's victory also ratifies the old saw that, in politics, you can't beat somebody with nobody. Lieberman is a big-time National Somebody, a senator and former vice presidential nominee who can raise money in a snap and get his mug on national television even faster. Yet Lamont's general comportment and televised debate performance assured many voters that he was more than a mere release valve for Democrats' frustrations. By showing state Democrats that he was no Nobody, Lamont prevented Lieberman from dismissing him and his supporters with all those "Who is Ned Lamont?" sneers and complaints about polarizing partisan "extremists."

Buoyed by the support and hopes of 146,065 Democrats inside Connecticut and millions more from the rest of the country, Lamont proved that even in an era when incumbents enjoy unusual electoral security, there are limits to how much complacency politicians can expect from their constituents.

Paola Roy had reached her limit. She told me that everything "became crystal clear" after her run-in with Lieberman. "He talked to me about all the programs he planned to implement and I thought, 'this isn't him going for his second term. What other occupation will you have X number of years to get it right?' I voted accordingly: I voted for Lamont."

Thomas F. Schaller is associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South (Simon & Schuster, October 2006).

By Thomas F. Schaller
Reprinted with Permission From American Prospect Online