It was closer than the polls
had suggested, but challenger Ned Lamont held on to his early lead
yesterday and defeated incumbent Joe Lieberman for the Democrat Senate
nomination in Connecticut. Official returns give Lamont 52.5% of the vote, but it’s a remarkable result no matter how small the margin – according to the BBC, it is “decades” since an incumbent senator has been beaten in a primary.

Lieberman
promptly filed a petition with the required number of signatures
(evidently collected beforehand) to run as an independent. But the
Democrat leadership, most of whom had supported Lieberman, will not
follow him that far; yesterday they were all lining up to say they will
back Lamont in November’s election.

According to a CBS/New York Times exit poll,
61% of Democrat voters opposed the idea of an independent candidacy.
It’s nonetheless possible that if the Republicans run dead in November,
conservative votes could re-elect Lieberman. Alternatively, if the GOP
is able to run a strong candidate, the split in the Democrat vote may
enable them to win the seat themselves.

The bitterness of the
Connecticut contest again gives the lie to the 1992 Clinton campaign
dictum that “it’s the economy, stupid”. Economic issues can move
swinging voters, but parties also need basic principles to drive them.
None of John Howard’s MPs will cross the floor over interest rates or
petrol prices, but some will heed the call of international law.
Similarly, Democrats on both sides of the Iraq war see it as an issue
beyond compromise.

Lieberman lost because, despite his national
profile, he had positioned himself too far out of the Democrat
mainstream. Accusing his opponents of being “partisan” didn’t help,
when he was seen to be giving aid and comfort to an administration that
has made partisanship a way of life.
As yesterday’s New York Times editorial
puts it, “Traditional beliefs like every person’s right to a day in
court, or the conviction that America should not start wars it does not
know how to win, wind up being portrayed as extreme.”

Connecticut’s
Democrats told the leadership that they want their party to stand up
against that partisanship. In November, we’ll find out if the majority
of Americans agree with them.

Peter Fray

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