Lamont Relied On Net Roots -- And Grass Roots
Wednesday, August 9, 2006
MERIDEN, Conn., Aug. 8 -- Almost no one saw it coming.
Six months ago, Ned Lamont's name recognition was, within the margin of error, zero. He made campaign fliers on a copy machine. In a race against a Democratic senator with a national reputation, the political novice had two main things in his favor: substantial personal wealth and a potent issue.
From Day One, the man who became Connecticut's Democratic nominee for the Senate on Tuesday stuck to a simple message: The war in Iraq was wrong and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman was wrong to continue supporting it. But while Lamont's success has been widely attributed to the rising power of the antiwar movement and liberal Internet bloggers, the 52-year-old upstart from Greenwich became a political giant-killer by blending both new- and old-style politics. He tapped the Net roots to promote his cause -- but the grass roots to win over voters.
With its strong Internet presence and gung-ho supporters, Lamont's campaign soon came to resemble Howard Dean's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination two years ago. But there are key differences. Despite the national implications of Lamont's candidacy, his campaign retained a distinctly local flavor, staffed by veteran state operatives and a homegrown volunteer corps. As the hype grew, the campaign stuck to the basics. It focused on building a file of likely voters, organizing a turnout effort and circulating Lamont at events, including small gatherings in living rooms.
"The story is really about voters in Connecticut who stood with Ned Lamont," said Tom Matzzie, political director for the antiwar organization MoveOn.org, one of numerous outside groups that promoted Lamont's candidacy. "He went from town to town, house to house, for months. It defined grass-roots campaigning."
The Lamont effort started slowly, with a clear mission but low expectations. The multimillionaire cable television businessman had little political experience aside from a stint as a Greenwich selectman in the late 1980s. When Lamont entered the race in March, polls showed Lieberman with strong popularity, despite the state's strong antiwar leanings. Moreover, Connecticut's election laws forced primary challengers into a costly and time-consuming qualifying process that led other Democrats to conclude the road was too steeply uphill to proceed.
Lamont turned those early obstacles into opportunities. He decided to pursue both avenues for getting on the ballot: collecting signatures and wooing Democratic delegates at the state convention. Both required aggressive outreach and helped to expand his support base. The results were so impressive, campaign manager Tom Swan said, that once Lamont secured a third of the delegates -- well in excess of the 10 percent he needed -- his workers continued collecting signatures to expand their database.
Lamont's success at the state convention was the first of three turning points. The second was Lieberman's announcement in July that if he lost, he would run as an independent -- a decision that offended some Democrats and reinforced Lamont's argument that Lieberman is not a true Democrat. The third was a debate performance that showed Lamont could stand up against a skilled politician while pressing his case to a statewide audience.
Lamont is not a typical insurgent. Preppy and mild-mannered, he is the scion of a patrician banking family, with a lineage that includes a great-grandfather, Thomas W. Lamont, who was chairman of J.P. Morgan.
He first met with Swan in early December. Swan, the director of a consumer advocacy organization called Connecticut Citizen Action Group, was an experienced local organizer. He had nursed a grudge against Lieberman since 1994, when the senator opposed the Clinton administration's universal health care plan. Swan and his colleague John Murphy had been invited to meet Lamont by a mutual friend, a statewide political figure who become angry with Lieberman over the war.
"The first meeting, it was clear to us that he was not a typical politician," Swan said of Lamont. "There was something that we found really, really appealing -- an earnestness."
After Christmas, Lamont decided to challenge Lieberman, and Swan and Murphy took leaves of absence from CCAG to join him. One early move was to launch a primitive Web page seeking 1,000 volunteers in all 169 of the state's municipalities, building on the strength of local Democratic organizations. They began a voter-history project to track down people who voted in every obscure local primary and referendum -- information that was not available in statewide rolls.
The campaign relied heavily on "house parties," or small neighborhood gatherings -- a tactic used in the 2004 presidential campaign, in particular by Dean. Organizers used the events to build their lists of likely voters and add to the volunteer ranks. Eventually, the campaign put the whole system online.
"Their voting techniques are on the cutting edge of politics," said Matzzie, whose organization, MoveOn.org, is a pioneer of the house-party model.
Lamont's wealth was also a critical factor. His campaign raised and spent about $4 million through July 19, about$2.5 million of which came from his own pocket.
The campaign also reached out to organized groups that had grown frustrated with Lieberman over issues other than the war, including unions that opposed free trade as well as women's groups that had been angered by the senator's support for a decision by Connecticut's Catholic hospitals to refuse emergency contraception to rape victims.
Those issues underscored a weakness that Lamont and others had sensed from the outset: that after 18 years in the Senate, Lieberman had grown distant from Connecticut Democrats. "I don't know if any of it would have worked, if Joe hadn't been so out of touch," Swan said.
Though highly effective in the primary, Lamont's grass-roots model may need some tweaking if Lieberman decides to run as an independent. "The grass-roots approach is targeted at left-leaning Democrats," said Ken Dautrich, a professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut.
In his victory statement Tuesday night, Lamont said: "This race started out as a dream, many thought an impossible dream, but thanks to all of you and thousands of citizens across the state . . . we have a coalition that believes this is a time for change."