By Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 9, 2006
HARTFORD, Conn., Aug. 8 -- In a stark repudiation, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) narrowly lost the Democratic Senate primary here Tuesday night, falling to antiwar candidate Ned Lamont in a campaign that became a referendum on the incumbent's support for the Iraq war.
Lieberman publicly conceded the primary shortly after 11 p.m., after a congratulatory call to Lamont. But he appeared almost exuberant in defeat, telling supporters at a hotel in Hartford that he planned to run as an independent in November and predicting that he would be returned to the Senate for a fourth term.
Lieberman, accused by many in his own party of being too accommodating to President Bush, also made it clear that he would try to make the general election a campaign about a tone and style of politics that he said has stalemated Washington and that he charged was at the heart of Lamont's campaign.
"I am, of course, disappointed by the results, but I am not discouraged," Lieberman said. "I'm disappointed not just because I lost but because the old politics of partisan polarization won today. For the sake of our state, our country and my party, I cannot and will not let that result stand."
Lieberman faces potentially substantial hurdles in his independent candidacy, despite a poll taken early in the summer showing him winning a three-way race easily. His own party's leadership is likely to be nearly united in opposition to his candidacy, at least on the basis of their previous statements that they would back the primary winner. Lieberman hopes to attract moderate independents and many Republicans while holding on to at least part of his Democratic support.
Lamont, who was given little chance of winning when he launched his campaign in the spring, appeared moments later before a cheering, chanting crowd of supporters at a victory party in Meriden. "They call Connecticut the land of steady habits," he said to supporters. "Tonight we voted for a big change."
Saying the time has come to "fix George Bush's failed foreign policy," Lamont said he would push for a withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq. "I say it's high time to bring them home to a hero's welcome," he said as his supporters began to chant "Bring them home, bring them home."
In his victory speech, Lamont praised Lieberman for his service to the state but added: "I'm hoping that over the course of the next few days that we'll come to the conclusion that the party's going to stick together and we'll go forward united."
The three-term incumbent lost his bid for renomination exactly six years after he was chosen as Al Gore's vice presidential running mate, marking a fall from grace among his fellow Democrats that came with brutal swiftness and signaled the growing strength of the antiwar movement inside the Democratic Party.
With almost all precincts reporting, Lamont had 52 percent of the vote to Lieberman's 48 percent. The Connecticut secretary of state's office reported strong turnout in a campaign that built in intensity over the summer.
The Senate primary was closely watched around the country as a barometer of antiwar sentiment that could shape the November midterm elections, particularly in Democratic-leaning states.
Beyond that, the Lieberman-Lamont contest carried implications for a Democratic Party that long has been split over national security and whose congressional leaders and prospective 2008 presidential candidates have struggled to find consensus on the war.
Republican officials have argued that a Lamont victory would represent a left turn for the Democrats on security issues, a charge that Democratic leaders have rejected, arguing that the contest here was as much about Democratic frustration with the president as with the war.
At a minimum, the Connecticut primary is likely to ensure that Democrats of all stripes -- those who initially supported the war and those who have opposed it -- take a more aggressive posture in combating the president and his policies at home and abroad.
Lieberman had trailed badly in some pre-election polls and mounted a final-week push that included a speech Sunday night designed to address criticism of his position on the war and his relationship with Bush. That helped make the contest much tighter than it once appeared, but still left Lieberman short of his goal.
Lieberman, 64, was first elected to the Senate in 1988, defeating Republican incumbent Lowell P. Weicker Jr. Earlier he served as Connecticut attorney general. In this three terms in the Senate, he became one of the party's most prominent hawks on military matters and an advocate of bipartisanship who sometimes relished his reputation for crossing party lines on matters of principle.
Those characteristics put him on the defensive in the primary campaign, even though he enjoyed the support of former president Bill Clinton and an array of Democratic officials nationally and in the state, as well as the support of major newspapers in Connecticut and key Democratic constituency groups.
Lamont, 52, is a wealthy Greenwich businessman whose great-grandfather Thomas W. Lamont was a chairman of J.P. Morgan & Co. He made a fortune in the telecommunications industry but is a relative newcomer to politics, having served previously as a Greenwich selectman. He lost a bid for the state Senate in 1990.
Lamont built his campaign initially with the enthusiastic support of the "Net roots" -- bloggers and other Internet-based activists -- and then expanded with a grass-roots campaign that attracted rank-and-file Democrats who opposed the war and who complained that Lieberman had neglected the interests of his home state.
Many Democratic officials had said that, despite their support for Lieberman in the primary, they would back Lamont in the general election if he defeated the incumbent. Many more are likely to come aboard the Lamont campaign on Wednesday.
That sets up what is likely to be a bitter rerun of the primary and continued divisions within the party here that some Democrats fear could affect their chances of capturing three closely contested Republican-held U.S. House seats in Connecticut.
Democrats have been talking privately about efforts to persuade Lieberman not to run as an independent, but the margin of Lamont's victory may make that far more problematic. Lieberman advisers had said for days they doubted that the incumbent could be turned back for running as an independent, and he seemed almost liberated on Tuesday night by the ability to run in the fall without having to bow to the anger inside his own party that brought about Lamont's extraordinary victory.
It is rare that Senate incumbents lose their primaries and rarer still that they are felled by the kind of challenge that Lamont's candidacy represented. Lieberman's defeat was the result of many factors, including perceptions that he cared more about his national agenda and ambitions than he did about Connecticut. But it was the war and Democratic frustration with Bush that brought about his downfall.
Controversy marred the final hours of the campaign. On Monday, Lieberman's Web site crashed. Lieberman advisers blamed that on pro-Lamont hackers. Lamont's campaign denied involvement.
The contest ahead is expected to be contentious. The Republican candidate, Alan Schlesinger, is lightly regarded, and there has been some speculation that Republicans would seek to have him step aside in favor of a stronger candidate.
Lieberman and Lamont met in their only debate of the campaign on July 6. Lieberman hammered Lamont as a single-issue candidate who had taken multiple positions on the war and urged his rival -- and Connecticut voters -- not to take out their anger at Bush on him.
"I know George Bush," Lieberman said. "I've worked against George Bush. I've even run against George Bush, but I'm not George Bush. So why don't you stop running against him and have the courage and honesty to run against me and the facts of my record?"
Lamont fired back, "Senator Lieberman, if you won't challenge President Bush and his failed agenda, I will."
Democrats also were selecting a nominee to run against the popular Republican governor, M. Jodi Rell. With almost all the voted counted, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano led Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy by about 4,000 votes.
Special correspondent Chris Cillizza and political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.