Coverage and analysis of the Lieberman-Lamont primary results has likely consumed an entire national forest today, or at least a forest’s worth of giga-bytes on the internet. But before the Crystal Ball turns its attention northward, we present a brief glimpse of the current midterm picture.
The Election as it Looks on August 10
Last week, the Crystal Ball updated its outlook to predict a pro-Democratic shift of 12-15 seats in the House, 3-6 Senate seats, and 4-6 governorships. This week, the Crystal Ball offers you our freshest perspective as to where Democrats are most likely to reap these gains:
SENATE: That Sixth-Seat Itch (Currently 55 R, 44 D, 1 I/D)
Probable D Senate pick-ups: Pennsylvania, Montana
Leaning D Senate pick-ups: Missouri, Rhode Island, Ohio
The “Sixth Seat” needed to switch the Senate to D control, in order of probability: Tennessee, Arizona, Virginia (all currently R favored, though Tennessee is the most competitive)
D Open Seats Leaning D: Maryland, Minnesota, Vermont
D Open Seats Leaning R: None
R Open Seats Leaning R: Tennessee
R Open Seats Leaning D: None
[Note: We have not listed Connecticut because the only two likely winners are Democratic nominee Ned Lamont and Senator Joe Lieberman, who–despite running now as an independent–says he will still caucus as a Democrat. Republican nominee Alan Schelsinger is a weak candidate and is not a competitor, therefore this seat will effectively remain in Democartic hands whether Lamont of Lieberman wins.]
HOUSE: On the Fringe of Fifteen (Currently 232 R, 202 D, 1 I/D)
Probable D House pick-ups: Pennsylvania-06
R Open Seats Leaning D: Texas-22, Colorado-07, Iowa-01
R Open Seats that are Toss-Ups: Arizona-08, Illinois-06, Minnesota-06, New York-24, Ohio-18
Possible D House pick-ups: Arizona-05, Connecticut-02, Connecticut-04, Connecticut-05, Florida-22, Indiana-02, Indiana-08, Indiana-09, Kentucky-04, North Carolina-11, New Mexico-01, New York-20, Ohio-01, Ohio-15, Pennsylvania-08, Pennsylvania-10, Texas-23, Virginia-02, Washington-08
R Open Seats Leaning R: Florida-13, Wisconsin-08
D Open Seats Leaning R: None
D Open Seats that are Toss-Ups: None
D Open Seats Leaning D: Ohio-06, Vermont-AL
GOVERNOR: A Dem Gov Groundswell? (Currently 28 R, 22 D)
Probable D Governor pick-ups: Arkansas, Colorado, Masachusetts, New York, Ohio
R Open Seats Leaning D: Arkansas, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio
Possible D Governor pick-ups: Alaska, Maryland, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Florida
Probable R Governor pick-ups: None
Possible R Governor pick-ups: Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Oregon, Wisconsin
D Open Seats Leaning R: None
D Open Seats that are Toss-Ups: Iowa
R Open Seats Leaning R: Nevada, Florida, Idaho
[Note: If Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) wins re-nomination in Alaska–which is very unlikely–then Alaska will be listed as a probable D pick-up. If another Republican wins the GOP nomination, the race will be considered a toss-up.]
Coming soon: Full race updates for all races above, including a refreshed Dirty Thirty list of House races and new Senate and gubernatorial race rundowns.
Meanwhile, Back in Conncticut…
It’s a fact: almost every modern federal election cycle, no matter how volatile or tranquil, develops its “marquee” Senate race. Easily identifiable by its status as ground zero for swarms of national media (and perpetuated by media preoccupation), the typical top-billed fight stands head and shoulders above all others for any of the following reasons: the height of its stakes, the novelty or stature of its players, the uniqueness of its circumstances, or its descriptiveness of the larger national debate. In 2006, the nation’s signature Senate showdown may well fit all four of those characteristics and hold additional serious implications for races across the country.
Recent history is littered with examples of such epic battles for membership in the world’s most exclusive political club. In 1994, the four-ring circus that was the Virginia race for Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb’s seat attracted the nation’s spotlight for its motley mix of candidates including Iran-Contra figure Oliver North, though the race’s result turned out to be unrepresentative of the year’s tidal wave. And just two years ago, tiny South Dakota was front and center in the national battle for Congress’s upper chamber as then-Democratic Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle suffered defeat at the hands of GOP Sen. John Thune, who was summarily toasted as a giant-killer by his party from coast to coast.
Earlier this year, it looked as if the most likely headline-grabber and ultimate illustrator of the 2006 portrait would be the bitter Pennsylvania contest between conservative Sen. Rick Santorum (R), who is widely loathed by liberal activists even beyond the state’s borders, and moderate State Treasurer Bobby Casey (D). But now, with Casey fairly firmly positioned in the driver’s seat in the Keystone State anyway, another state that seemed a most unlikely source of Senate competition as recently as six months ago has dramatically seized the opening. In the wake of a tumultuous Democratic primary contest, Connecticut is well-positioned to become the media’s new favorite fishbowl for November, and three-term Sen. Joe Lieberman will need to swim more swiftly in a concentrated sea of anti-Iraq War discontent in order to keep his head above water as an independent contender.
As it became clearer in the past several months that the tug of war between Lieberman and insurgent anti-war upstart Ned Lamont would be nothing to sneeze at, the Nutmeg state’s Democratic Senate primary took on all the feel of a New Hampshire presidential primary. A true spectacle, the race’s explosive intra-party New England battle became the epicenter of American politics in the run-up Tuesday’s balloting, and extraordinarily for a Senate race, didn’t even end with Lamont’s 52 to 48 percent party nomination win! As long as Lieberman adheres to his pledge to campaign off his party’s line and stay in as an Independent, the race just continues on to another round.
Sure, Tuesday’s result may have been closer than “expected”–expectations created by polls that may or may not have been right–but it is a huge deal when any senator is defeated in his party’s primary. In fact, in the last dozen election cycles prior to 2006 put together (400 separate Senate seats), a mere three incumbent senators have lost their primaries. And this year’s casualty isn’t just any senator. Lieberman, who was hailed as the trophy catch of Al Gore’s 2000 hunt for a running mate, looked more the part of a deer in the headlights six years later. Blindsided by anger at the war, not only was he caught standing treacherously in the ideological middle of the road; he was awkwardly straddling the line between Democratic primary candidate and stealth independent general election petitioner. In the end, Lieberman was seriously wounded by Lamont’s narrow win, and now must hobble along the trail to November 7th donning a “loser” sign on his back.
The grand irony of Lieberman’s Tuesday defeat, of course, is the likelihood that more than 5,000 voters out of Lamont’s 146,000 total would have voted for Lieberman had the incumbent pledged to abide by the results of the Democratic primary, a tiny fraction of the electorate sufficient to reverse the result. Lieberman’s decision to simultaneously seek the Democratic nod and petition his way onto the ballot as “insurance” proved a woeful political miscalculation and sent the ultimate mixed message. For all his experiential advantage against Lamont, it was the incumbent who proved both the inferior decision-maker and communicator in this classic race. But for Lieberman, hindsight is 20/20.
Once a new three-way race gels, it should shape up to be a closely matched continuation of the battle between Lieberman and Lamont, with minor-league Republican nominee Alan Schlesinger lagging somewhere in the teens in polls (assuming he is not replaced). For starters, the results of Connecticut’s nomination battle royal will trigger a remarkable reversal of roles. Lamont, who was alternately viewed as a dangerous far-left Robespierre figure by detractors and a plainspoken progressive crusader by admirers, will now be able to wrap himself in the support of nearly all key Democratic establishment figures who had supported Lieberman, including national party leaders (the Clintons and party committees), labor unions (such as the AFL-CIO), and even close Lieberman friend/CT senior Sen. Chris Dodd. And for all his incumbency, Lieberman’s highest-profile in-state praise for an independent bid will likely come from Republicans. But is Lieberman actually losing a critical bulwark of support? The Crystal Ball’s guess is that his transition from establishment endorsee to semi-outsider independent candidate will not be terribly disabling in its own right. After all, who knows–the outsider mantle worked for Ned Lamont!
Beyond Connecticut, the state’s Senate primary and its aftermath also hold serious national implications. First, for the Democrats, the extra innings of the Lieberman-Lamont fight threaten to serve as a distracting struggle for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party. Convenient to the New York nexus of the national media and already very familiar to political press corps, the race will continue to bare the true substantive intra-party divisions Democrats are desperately trying to hide as they attempt to present a united front for “change” before voters in November. Ongoing coverage of the race will do nothing to clarify where the party stands on big-ticket issues, first and foremost on the Iraq War. To be certain, Lamont manufactured an even greater share of noise than votes in the primary on the issue, but his support for immediate troop redeployment is still at odds with the majority of Democratic senators in party leadership positions who will now endorse his candidacy. Sure, the anger of the liberal Democratic base will continue to take center stage, but the party’s lesions will now be highly visible through to November, making the Connecticut contest just about the last race Democrats would nominate to be the “marquee” showdown of 2006.
Second, Lieberman’s high-profile defeat in the primary serves as a broader indication that a significant anti-incumbent mood is afoot this year. Up until this point in the cycle, we had seen primary challengers of both parties drawing progressively closer to their incumbent rivals, but only two (in Ohio and Georgia) had come within 6 percentage points of the incumbent’s total. Indeed, no incumbent governors, senators, or congressmen prior to Tuesday night had lost their bids for re-nomination, leading the Crystal Ball to believe this year could be an historical aberration. But on Tuesday night, two congressional incumbents in addition to Lieberman met with defeat! (And it is likely that Alaska’s GOP Gov. Frank Murkowski will suffer the same fate in two weeks). The electoral outcomes this week buttressed the findings of a survey released August 7th by ABC News and the Washington Post, chiefly that 53 percent of Americans now consider themselves “anti-incumbent.” Although local circumstances without a doubt weighed heavily in each of the ousters of Georgia Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D), Michigan Rep. Joe Schwarz (R), and Lieberman, their sudden coincidence suggests that a “throw the bums out” sentiment is beginning to resonate as a theme as Labor Day looms. Could all three of these blows been struck on a Tuesday two or three months ago? The Crystal Ball doubts it.
As an endnote on the Nutmeg State’s fireworks, everyone knows the main source of upset was Lieberman’s position on the Iraq War, but his troubles with the issue went much deeper than his stance alone. Many senators who have taken deeply controversial stands that have infuriated their party activists have still managed to get re-nominated. Joe Lieberman forgot to keep the home fires burning; he didn’t take the critical next step of leadership. He voted his conscience, but he neglected to take the fight to his constituents, to try to convince them that his principled stand was correct, or at least tolerable. There’s some arrogance in that failing, and every incumbent of both parties ought to take note. Even–especially–if reelected as an Independent in the nation’s new marquee Senate race, Lieberman will never again exert much moderating influence on the Democrats. The Lamont victory may give conservatives temporary cause for joy, since they can portray the Democrats as “loony left.” But think twice. The neutering of one of the most bipartisan national politicians is not healthy for a political system that simply must find some ways to reach across party lines.