Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman's defeat in the Democratic Party primary has sent a shock wave across the American political landscape, reverberating beyond this November's midterm elections and into the 2008 race for the presidency.
By the time the returns were in Tuesday night, showing Senator Lieberman losing to antiwar businessman Ned Lamont 52 percent to 48 percent, the sight of the 2000 vice presidential candidate losing his party's nomination for a fourth Senate term did not come as a surprise. Polls had shown Lieberman trailing for weeks. Still, the loss came as a stark reminder to all Washington politicians that the support of the voters back home can never be taken for granted – especially if their position on a central issue, in this case the Iraq war, differs markedly from that of a critical mass in their own party.
"It shows the discontentment among Democrats both at [President] Bush and many of his policies – particularly the war – and their desire that the leaders of the Democratic Party in Washington take a more aggressive stance against the administration than Senator Lieberman did," says Howard Reiter, head of the political science department at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.
As political players across the spectrum spun and analyzed the result, Lieberman himself pressed ahead with an independent candidacy, setting up a three-way general election Nov. 7 that pits him against Mr. Lamont and a weak Republican, Alan Schlesinger, who has faced embarrassing allegations about gambling habits. Polls taken before his primary loss showed Lieberman winning such a three-way contest, pulling majority support among Republicans and independents.
But the postprimary world has changed, and Lieberman's prospects are uncertain. Many of his closest Senate allies are now backing Lamont, and his ability to raise funds and organize as an independent remains an open question. Wednesday morning, state Democrats held a unity event with Lamont on the steps of the state capitol in Hartford.
Republican leaders quickly portrayed the Lieberman loss as an example of the Democrats' "cut and run" approach to Iraq and a desire to purge those who believe in a "strong national defense."
The Lieberman defeat "reflects an unfortunate embrace of isolationism, defeatism, and a 'blame America first' attitude by national Democratic leaders at a time when retreating from the world is particularly dangerous," Republican national chair Ken Mehlman told the City Club of Cleveland Wednesday morning.
Democrats of all stripes fired back. In a conference call with reporters, Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, head of his party's House campaign committee, saw high energy among Connecticut Democrats that will carry through until November. "This should be a flashing red light to the Republican Party," he said, noting the other incumbents, a Republican and a Democrat, defeated in primaries Wednesday. "There's a message to the level of anti-incumbency that resonates in both parties."
Given that more Republican incumbents face serious challengers than Democrats do, that's another flashing red light to the GOP, he said.
MoveOn.org, one of the "netroots" organizations that helped raise money and provide on-the-ground people power for Lamont, saw all positives for national Democrats in Tuesday's outcome. "Some will say this is a split in the Democratic Party. No, it's the story of a politician who was way too close to George Bush," says Tom Matzzie, MoveOn's Washington director. "Given the disaster in Iraq, Republican leaders are hardly qualified to comment.... If they want to make this election about Iraq, bring it on. I think voters will hold politicians accountable."
In the centrist wing of the Democratic Party, where Lieberman is most at home, analysts sought to minimize any national message in the senator's loss.
"In the end, it's one race – and an idiosyncratic race in a lot of ways, so it's hard to extract lessons from it," says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank.
Mr. Marshall says he didn't think Lieberman's position on the war was so much the problem as that he "expressed insufficient disdain and criticism for Bush." He says Lieberman's defeat represents "a setback for people who think the party ought to be unifying around a strategy that can recapture the Congress in this election and put us in striking position for the White House two years hence."
Even before Tuesday, Lieberman's troubles appeared to be affecting the 2008 presidential race – or at least one senator thinking of running for her party's nomination. In a hearing last week, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York – who supported military action against Iraq and has yet to disavow that 2002 vote – was particularly aggressive in criticizing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's handling of the war, and called for his resignation. Senator Clinton has long sought to portray herself as a centrist on defense issues, a position that some party members felt was the safe position for her to take.
Now, says a Democratic consultant speaking on background, Clinton remains the "800-pound gorilla" in the race for the nomination, and "she needs to make a mistake not to get it." He adds: "One mistake she could make is going too far afoul of the liberal activist base of the party, and she's seeing in Connecticut just how strong [that base] is in the nominating process, and how important the war is to those folks."