If Karl Rove had a secret plan to destroy the Democratic Party, he could scarcely have dreamed up a more brilliant gambit than Ned Lamont’s primary challenge to Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.
Begin with this simple reality: Contested primaries are a drain on party resources. Time, money and effort expended in a primary fight are time, money and effort which might otherwise have gone to supporting the party’s nominee (or the party’s candidates in other races) in November. Through the end of June, according to FEC records, Lamont and Lieberman had spent nearly $6 million on their primary battle.
For an example of how contested primaries squander party resources, consider the 2004 presidential election. The seven top contenders for the Democratic nomination raised a total of $518 million in campaign cash -- $144 million more than the Republican incumbent, George W. Bush. Yet nearly $100 million of that Democratic cash was spent to promote candidates whose names weren’t on the ballot on Election Day. It’s hard to see how John Kerry and John Edwards gained any advantage from the tens of millions of dollars spent to hype the long-shot presidential hopes of Wesley Clark or Dennis Kucinich.
The millions being poured into the Senate primary in Connecticut this year represent a net loss to Democrats, whoever wins the nomination on Tuesday. But that loss is aggravated by the fact that Lamont is challenging an incumbent who otherwise would have won easily in November.
Exploiting the power of incumbency is one of the secrets of success in American congressional politics. Each party begins every campaign season with a certain number of incumbents, the overwhelming majority of whom are considered safe bets for re-election. A few dozen incumbent in each party will be rated at least somewhat vulnerable to challengers, and some small number will be seriously at risk of defeat. Also entering into this electoral calculus is the number of “open” seats – races in which the incumbent is not seeking re-election, some of which can be tipped from the control of one party to the other.
Logic vs. Lamont
Because of the advantages enjoyed by incumbents, it is rare for a “safe” incumbent to face any significant challenge in either the primary or general election. This is basic politics. The key to victory in congressional elections lies in (a) successfully defending your party’s incumbents, (b) winning your share of “open” seats, and (c) carefully targeting your opposition’s most vulnerable incumbents.
The Lamont insurgency defies any rational theory of partisan political strategy. Had Lamont not entered the Democratic primary, Lieberman would have coasted to an easy (and cheap) victory in November. Democratic donors and activists could have devoted their money and energies to winning contests that offered prospects for partisan gain in November. The GOP has a number of vulnerable Senate incumbents, and if Democratic challengers fall short on Election Day in Montana, Missouri or Ohio, Democrats will have cause to lament Lamont’s wasteful spectacle in Connecticut.
Lamont’s folly may also thwart Democrats’ hopes of recapturing control of the House this year. Three Connecticut House races – for seats currently held by Republican Reps. Christopher Shays, Rob Simmons and Nancy L. Johnson – had been targeted as pickup opportunities for Democrats this year. But as Congressional Quarterly’s Marie Horrigan reported, the Lamont-Lieberman race is a distraction from that Democratic effort. If Lamont wins Tuesday’s primary, Lieberman will mount an independent campaign for the Senate seat, creating a divisive, high-profile battle this fall that will deprive the party’s House hopefuls in Connecticut of publicity and partisan support.
Yet the damage done to Democrats by the Lamont insurgency may go far beyond short-term electoral considerations. To begin with, the Lamont campaign is a creature of far-left forces that have been a drag on the Democratic Party for four decades, at least as far back as 1968, when anti-war protesters turned the party’s Chicago convention into a nationally-televised debacle. The chief support for Lamont’s candidacy comes from groups which led Democrats from disaster to disaster in the 2002 and 2004 elections: MoveOn.org, Howard Dean’s Democracy for America (DFA) political action committee, and a cadre of left-wing bloggers led by Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of DailyKos.com.
Besides their anti-war activism, what these forces have in common is their celebration of political amateurism – disdaining “politics as usual” and attacking as inauthentic or ineffective the Democratic Party’s most experienced operatives – and their increasingly obvious ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
It should be recalled that, despite the problematic legacy of Bill Clinton’s scandal-ridden administration, Al Gore came within an eyelash of winning the 2000 presidential election and actually won a plurality of the popular vote. Meanwhile, Democratic gains in the 2000 Senate elections meant that, after Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords abandoned the GOP in 2001, Democrats temporarily captured control of the Senate.
Since then, however, Democrats have steadily lost ground, with the assistance of MoveOn.org and other liberal activist groups. In 2002, it was these activists who insisted on a showdown debate over the looming Iraq war – and Republicans scored unexpected gains in the subsequent mid-term election. The 2002 election was also the first in which liberal bloggers led by Jerome Armstrong (of the MyDD.com site) and Moulitsas played a significant role. In 2003, Armstrong and Moulitsas signed on as Internet consultants to Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. This proved a windfall for Dean – as liberal blogs helped generate both contributions and publicity for his candidacy – but a disaster for Democrats.
After the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, most leading Democrats had supported the Bush administration’s aggressive response in Afghanistan and Iraq. But with the support of Armstrong, Moulitsas and other Internet-based activists, Dean’s anti-war stance (and his status as former governor of Vermont, the first state to grant legal recognition to same-sex unions) catapulted him to front-runner status in the 2004 Democratic presidential field. It was the Dean insurgency that forced John Kerry into an anti-war posture and led to the Mother of All Flip-Flops, the Massachusetts Democrat’s embarrassing attempt to explain why, having voted to authorize the war in Iraq, he then voted against a bill to pay for body armor for the troops fighting there.
By the time the “Dean Machine” flamed out in Iowa with the candidate’s infamous screaming rant, the Democratic Party had followed the early front-runner into what could only be described as a defeatist policy toward the Iraq war. Rallying to the president’s call to stay the course in Iraq, Republicans scored another historic victory in 2004 – making Mr. Bush the first president to win a majority of the popular vote in 16 years, since his father did so in 1988.
Into the future
Undeterred by successive failures in 2002 and 2004, the same left-wing forces have only increased their efforts in 2006, once again pushing the basic message of the Dean campaign: America can’t win in Iraq. Though Lamont supporters have lately begun insisting otherwise, Lamont’s anti-war stance is the only discernible justification for his challenge to Lieberman – and this is likely to prove another harmful effect of the Connecticut race.
Despite the increasing Red State/Blue State polarization of recent years, there are still millions of uncommitted voters and Democrats who, like Joe Lieberman, are generally liberal on domestic issues, but understand the need for a strong stand against Islamic terrorists like the insurgents now attacking U.S. troops in Iraq. Whether Lamont wins or loses, the anti-war candidate’s strong showing in Connecticut will further weaken the Democratic Party’s ability to appeal to such voters.
This reality helps explain why Democrats ranging from Bill Clinton to California Sen. Barbara Boxer have traveled to Connecticut to campaign for Lieberman. Unlike some of the left-wing activists backing Lamont, Democratic insiders understand the serious problems they will face if they cannot soon reverse their party’s flagging fortunes. If Democrats can’t take back Congress in November, and if they fail to win either Congress or the White House in 2008, their long-term prospects are bleak. Due to demographic shifts toward the suburbs and the Sun Belt, the 2010 census will produce major gains for Republicans in terms of House seats and the Electoral College. Should the GOP manage to maintain the upper hand until 2012, Republicans could confidently hope to remain the dominant majority for another decade.
Without any short-term hope of regaining significant political power, then, Democrats risk becoming irrelevant – and perhaps obsolete. Campaign contributors are unlikely to continue funding Democrats trapped in the role of a permanent and powerless minority. To assume that the Democratic Party must continue to exist under such hopeless circumstances is to ignore the fate that befell the Federalists after 1800 and the Whigs after 1848.
Coming into 2006, several factors favored Democrats’ hopes of recapturing at least one chamber of Congress. Ned Lamont’s primary challenge to Joe Lieberman has dimmed those hopes – and thus eventually may prove to have hastened the destruction of the Democratic Party.
Whoever wins in Connecticut on Tuesday, Democrats lose. Karl Rove couldn’t have planned a better scenario for Republicans.
(Robert Stacy McCain is co-author, with Lynn Vincent, of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party, published by Nelson Current.)