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Defeated at the starting gate

Politics | Lieberman isn't the only incumbent to be tossed by voters in state primary battles

Issue: "Living a legend," Aug. 19, 2006

Years from now, liberal bloggers may look to Aug. 8 as the day they found their voice. To hear the "netroots" folks tell it, the victory of their Lilliputian candidate in Connecticut's Democratic senatorial primary compares favorably to David versus Goliath. After all, incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman enjoyed a sizable experience edge over political neophyte-but millionaire-Ned Lamont. Yet Lamont became the choice of popular bloggers like Markos Moulitsas, founder of DailyKos.com, for his anti-war views.

Only two years ago Lieberman was a presidential candidate and was Al Gore's running mate in 2000. But Lieberman's hawkish support of the president's Iraq policy made him unpopular in a solidly blue state. Bloggers sensed blood and rushed to support Lamont months ago despite urgings from establishment Democrats like Bill Clinton to support Lieberman.

Moulitsas, whose site along with MoveOn.org helped divert cash and volunteers to Lamont's campaign-allegedly bringing in 13,000 voters newly affiliated with the Democratic party in time for the primary-even appeared in a Lamont commercial. "They saw their patron saint go down in defeat last night," Moulitsas wrote on his blog, which is viewed by 700,000 readers daily. "And this wasn't just any defeat, this was the triumph of a rag-tag band of rebels against everything the DC Democratic establishment could throw at us-President Clinton, Barbara Boxer, NARAL, and so on."

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Now if the 18-year Senate veteran returns to the Senate in 2007, it won't be as a Democrat. Almost as soon as liberal Lamont knocked off Lieberman-winning 52 percent of the vote to Lieberman's 48 percent-Lieberman filed papers to run as an independent in November's general election.

Buoyed only by Joementum (that dubious portmanteau word coined by Lieberman in 2004 to describe his optimism in the face of long odds), the incumbent vowed he had only begun to fight. "As I see it, in this campaign, we've just finished the first half and the Lamont team is ahead," Lieberman said in a concession speech. "But in the second half, our team, Team Connecticut, is going to surge forward to victory in November."

And unlike his failed presidential bid in 2004, his Joementum might have more substance this time. A Quinnipiac University poll taken in July pegged Lieberman, boosted by Republican voters apparently willing to get behind him, with a 51 percent share of the votes in a three-way race, with Lamont coming in second at 27 percent, and Republican challenger Alan Schlesinger finishing third with 9 percent of the electorate.

The Republican candidate, former mayor of Derby, faced setbacks when reports surfaced that he had to pay off $28,000 in gambling debts in the 1990s. Even without the public gambling debts, Schlesinger faces an uphill climb. In 2004, Connecticut's other Democratic senator, Christopher Dodd, won reelection with 66 percent of the vote.

Moving toward the general election, Lamont's challenge is whether his netroots support can be converted into enough grassroots votes to win.

Lieberman was not the only Democratic incumbent to flame out in the primaries. Georgia congresswoman Cynthia McKinney's loss was predictably met with fireworks from the combustible Democrat. Voters dealt McKinney, now widely known for a scuffle with Capitol Hill police, a stinging defeat. She concluded her campaign by delivering a concession speech that included her singing along to Pink's controversial song, "Dear Mr. President," while her campaign workers got into a scuffle with television media.

And Democrats weren't the only ones handing it to incumbents. GOP voters in Michigan ousted Rep. Joe Schwarz in a Battle Creek primary race won by conservative Tim Walberg. Like Lieberman, Schwarz was seen as a moderate in a partisan district. Walberg earned a boost from conservative interest groups like Club for Growth, which injected nearly $500,000 into Walberg's campaign.

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