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A Lieberman 2006 Repeat in 2024?

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— The Editors


—Last week, former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, a sitting Democratic senator who won reelection in 2006 as an independent following a primary loss, passed away.

—In West Virginia, Sen. Joe Manchin (D) has signaled he intends to follow through with his retirement plans, though he has not completely ruled out an independent bid.

—In New Jersey, embattled Sen. Bob Menendez (D) declined to seek renomination but has instead vowed to explore an independent bid for his seat.

—While we’re still expecting Republicans to win in West Virginia and Democrats in New Jersey, Sens. Angus King (I-ME) is still a favorite for reelection and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) would also be a prohibitive favorite if he chooses to run.

More third party action from sitting senators in 2024?

Last week, Joe Lieberman, one of the more idiosyncratic political characters of the last few decades, died at 82. In 2006, Lieberman, then a sitting senator, was defeated for renomination but won reelection as an independent—over the past few weeks, a few sitting senators have at least toyed with going a similar route.

Lieberman got a mention in a Crystal Ball edition from a little over a month ago when we looked at the history of split-ticket outcomes between presidential and Senate races. In 1988, as George H. W. Bush became the last Republican to carry Connecticut at the presidential level, Lieberman ousted three-term Sen. Lowell Weicker, who also died within the past year. In that race, Lieberman was a Democrat with a conservative reputation while Weicker was one of the most liberal Republican members of the Senate—both would eventually stage successful independent runs for state office. For Weicker, the opportunity came in 1990, when he created “A Connecticut Party” and won the gubernatorial race that year under its banner.

Lieberman’s departure from his original party label was not as voluntary. Though he was the Democrats’ nominee for vice president in 2000, he became known as a strident defender of the Iraq War—his hawkishness on foreign policy was also one reason why he was reportedly considered for the same slot on the GOP’s ticket eight years later. In any case, his support for the war hurt him in 2004, when he sought the presidency himself, and later in 2006, when he was up for renomination. Now-Gov. Ned Lamont (D), who launched what was seen initially as an uphill primary campaign, made the Iraq War a central issue—he ultimately defeated Lieberman 52%-48%.

Because Connecticut lacks a sore loser law, Lieberman was able to turn around and run under the “Connecticut for Lieberman” Party. In the general election, state and national Republicans did not actively support their own nominee. In this blue-leaning state, Lieberman, who had some conservative credibility, won majorities of independents and Republicans and defeated Lamont 50%-40%. Though Lieberman’s third-party run made for one of the cycle’s quirkiest Senate races, it was not unprecedented. In 1970, then-Sen. Thomas Dodd (D-CT) was denied renomination—he ran as an independent in the general election and helped Weicker win with a plurality.

In the next Congress, despite the primary result and his own friendships across the aisle, Lieberman opted to continue caucusing with Democrats, giving them a 51-49 majority in the chamber. Though he was a vote that Democratic leadership could count on most of the time, he continued to take some stands that irritated progressives—namely, when the Affordable Care Act was being negotiated, he was instrumental in sinking the public option. By the time his reelection was on the horizon, he was among the most unpopular senators in the nation and lacked a base. While Republicans gave him the highest job approval marks, they seemed to prefer to actually run a candidate of their own. With that, he opted to retire, although he stayed active in politics—most recently, he was involved with the centrist group No Labels.

Lieberman’s position going into 2012 elections, and how he responded to it, was why we were not especially surprised last month when Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, another independent-caucusing Democrat, announced her plans to retire. She was in essentially the same boat as Lieberman: while her approval numbers were sometimes positive with Republicans, she placed a clear third in most three-way trial heats. In October 2023 polling from Noble Predictive Insights, for example, Sinema took less than 20% against the likely major party nominees, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D, AZ-3) and pro-Trump election denier Kari Lake (R).

In West Virginia, Sen. Joe Manchin (D) announced his retirement plans in November. Still, one gets the impression that Manchin, who has been making appearances in locations far outside of his state in recent months, would not be retiring if he was not up for reelection in what should be, again, one of Donald Trump’s best states this year. In a more recent interview, Manchin did not completely rule out the possibility of running for his current seat as an independent, although he maintains that his intention is to leave the Senate next year.

The result of West Virginia’s May 14 primary may have some impact on Manchin’s thinking. By now, the Democratic bench in the Mountain State is so thin that his party could conceivably nominate a former Republican. Specifically, former coal executive Don Blankenship, who was imprisoned for a time and then sought the GOP nomination against Manchin in 2018. Blankenship has switched parties to run in the Democratic primary, although he does face a couple of seemingly more bona fide Democrats in the primary: Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott and Marine veteran Zach Shrewsbury.

If Blankenship gets through the primary, it would be easier to see Manchin taking the plunge—the filing deadline for independents in West Virginia is not until August, which would theoretically give Manchin some time to contemplate the state of the race. But whether a three-way race would actually be winnable for Democrats may be another story. Gov. Jim Justice (R), one of Manchin’s successors in Charleston and the likely GOP nominee, is generally more popular than Manchin and will, again, have the benefit of running in a state that Trump should carry by 40 points. Justice does still face a credible primary opponent who is running to his right, Rep. Alex Mooney (R, WV-2).

While it would stand to reason that Manchin may be better-positioned if he were free of a party label that has become toxic in much of the state, it would seem that Justice starts out with too high of a floor. In 2020, a very straight-ticket year across the board, the best-performing statewide Democrat in West Virginia was then-state Treasurer John Perdue. Perdue first won the office in 1996, when the state was blue at most levels, but was bounced in 2020 by then-state Rep. Riley Moore (R). Moore won 56%-44%, which, before he announced his retirement, was basically our prior for a two-way race that featured Manchin. Would Blankenship, running under the Democratic label, take enough votes from Justice to give Manchin a path to a plurality in the mid-40s? We have our doubts, although if Manchin did run as an independent, this at least would not be a Safe Republican-rated race anymore (but it also wouldn’t be a Toss-up).

And then there is New Jersey. Rep. Andy Kim (D, NJ-3) appears to have an easy path to winning the Democratic nomination—and, with that, the general election—in the Garden State. Kim’s current position, though, was hardly inevitable, and he may still have some resistance from the man he’s running to replace.

As a refresher, it was reported last year that a raid of Sen. Bob Menendez’s (D-NJ) home turned up several gold bars and other extravagant items that the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office maintained were bribes in exchange for helping the Egyptian government. Faced with federal corruption charges, Menendez refused to resign, although many of his colleagues—most notably home state Sen. Cory Booker (D)—called on him to do so. Kim, the first major New Jersey Democrat to call on Menendez to step aside, vowed to run for Menendez’s seat if the senator did not resign. Kim made good on his word, and launched a campaign for Senate.

Though Menendez eventually decided against seeking the Democratic nomination, Kim’s most prominent opponent ended up being New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy (D). Historically, the ballot “line” has reigned supreme in state primaries. Essentially, in partisan primaries, the candidates that the county-level parties favor are given a preferential spot on the ballot. Though Murphy secured the lines in counties representing a majority of the electorate, Kim seemed to outhustle his opposition, and beat expectations in most counties where the lines were awarded through open party conventions.

Over the past few weeks, two major developments pushed the race decidedly in Kim’s favor. First, in late March, Murphy, citing the need for partisan unity, announced she was suspending her campaign. Then, just days later, a federal judge sided with Kim in a lawsuit where he aimed to overturn the line system altogether. Although the ruling only applies to this year’s Democratic primary, federal Judge Zahid Quraishi’s opinion is critical of the line as an institution—state politicos now see the line’s larger demise as a question of when, not if.

Around the time the trajectory of the primary was truly breaking towards Kim, Menendez seemed to seriously entertain the idea of running of an independent. In the months since the news of his penchant for collecting gold bars was revealed, Menendez’s approval ratings have slid precipitously—in some polls, his approval number has been in the single-digits. So we don’t really see a scenario in which Menendez makes it back to the Senate as an independent. But, importantly, an active campaign would enable Menendez to raise funds to cover his mounting legal expenses.

Even if Menendez follows through, we are keeping New Jersey in the Safe Democratic column. A poll out earlier this week from Emerson College did not name nominees but showed a generic Democrat leading a generic Republican 49%-42%, while Menendez would take 9%. As we’ve seen in countless other races, independent candidates tend to underperform their poll numbers on Election Day. So it would be a shock if Menendez, especially given his image, would actually take a significant-enough share of the vote to truly put the seat in play. Similarly, we would not be surprised if Kim ends up outpolling what a “generic Democrat” would get, or at least runs ahead of Biden. During his first two terms in the House, he represented a marginal Trump district and, in this year’s general election, he’ll have the aura of someone who took on the machine and won.

While Manchin and Menendez would face steep odds in these scenarios, independent Sens. Angus King (I-ME) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) remain heavy favorites for reelection, although the latter has not formally announced his plans. Also, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was recently in the news for both declining to endorse Donald Trump for president and declining to rule out becoming an independent. Just as Republicans unsuccessfully courted Manchin to hop over to their caucus, we could imagine Democrats trying to court Murkowski down the road, particularly if, for instance, they are on the wrong end of a 51-49 GOP majority but retain the vice presidential tiebreaker after 2024. So even though Murkowski is not on the ballot again until 2028, the status of her party affiliation—or eventual non-affiliation—merits watching, too.