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The Battle for Congress: Can Lamont Beat Lieberman Again? A Look at Connecticut’s Senate Race

StoryOctober 24, 2006
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Ned Lamont, a wealthy telecommunications executive, is trying to pull off a second upset over Senator Joseph Lieberman after defeating him in the Democratic primary this summer. Lieberman is running as an independent but says he’ll caucus with Senate Democrats if he keeps his seat. [includes rush transcript]

Despite a celebrated victory in the primary, Lamont now faces an uphill battle. The latest polls show him trailing Lieberman by seventeen points.

Last night, the two frontrunners along with Republican Alan Schlesinger held their final debate before the election. In themes that have marked their respective campaigns, Lamont criticized Lieberman’s support for the Iraq war and other policies of the White House. Lieberman defended his record and said Lamont’s call for a withdrawal timetable of US troops from Iraq would lead to disaster. The debate came hours after Lamont filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission accusing Lieberman of failing to account for nearly $400,000 dollars in campaign spending in the days before the Democratic primary.

For more on this race we go to Harford, Connecticut where we’re joined by Bill Curry. He is a former Connecticut state comptroller and state senator — and twice the state Democratic nominee for governor. Curry served as a counselor to President Clinton from 1995 to 1997. He now writes a weekly column for the Hartford Courant.

  • Bill Curry, a former Connecticut state comptroller and state senator. He was the Democratic nominee for governor twice. He now writes a weekly column for the Hartford Courant.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on this race, we go to Hartford, Connecticut. We’re joined by Bill Curry, former Connecticut state comptroller and state senator, and twice the state Democratic nominee for governor. Curry served as counselor to President Clinton from ’95 to ’97. He now writes a weekly column for the Hartford Courant. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Bill.

BILL CURRY: Great to be here, Amy. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, can you talk about this race — the Democrat, the so-called Independent and the Republican?

BILL CURRY: First of all, I don’t think it’s a 17-point race. I think that Lieberman clearly has an advantage, but it’s not that wide an advantage. The second thing I would say is that it has been a race in which the distinctions have blurred in the general election. And I would say that Lieberman has run a more thematic race. Lamont has tried to run a more substantive, concrete issue-based race. Lieberman’s run on experience, bipartisanship, fear of attack from abroad, and he is also presented himself as a victim of unfair attacks from Lamont.

And it strikes me that Lamont hasn’t done a great job of countering that. You know, what a year to run on experience. This is the most experienced Congress, literally, in modern history, because of gerrymandering, government propaganda and special interest money. How are they doing, you know? What have we gotten out of that? In terms of bipartisanship, this has been the least bipartisan president, certainly in my memory. You can’t claim to have gotten compromises out of the Bush crowd, but only to go along with them. I think Joe Lieberman’s mistake, in a sense, you could say, is being bipartisan with the wrong Republicans. There are plenty of people here in Connecticut who’ve been looking for alternatives to Bush’s leadership, but not something you accomplish by aligning yourself with Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. And so, Lamont has had a lot of openings, but I haven’t seen him take advantage of them. And if anything, he’s become somewhat more of a classic Democratic candidate, blurring distinctions and being very, very careful on issues. And I think it’s sapped some of the momentum from his campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: What effect —

BILL CURRY: I’m having a little trouble — go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: If you could bear with the sound, if you’re having little trouble. What effect does Karl Rove have on the Democrats?

BILL CURRY: Well, Karl Rove frightens the Democrats to death. And I think what happens is that — I’ll just point out two things. One, Rove’s game, I guess it’s brilliant. It’s stale. We’ve seen him run it again and again. It’s a miracle it keeps working. What Rove does is frighten all the Democrats who have been battered by the culture wars and by their political reverses in all these years. He frightens them with the tag “extremist,” and the Democrats are so fearful of being labeled extremist that they say absolutely nothing. And then voters vote against them, because they had nothing to say. You could call it the John Kerry effect, I think, fairly in that race.

And I see it here. And I was listening to John Nichols’s very smart observations. In Connecticut, certainly, it’s a little different than it is in the industrial Midwest. We don’t have many populist candidates running in this part of the country. I agree that even here, less than in Michigan, but strongly, trade would be a very powerful issue — the erosion of jobs, the fact that the American middle class hasn’t gotten a raise in a generation, the fact that the baby boomers are about to die broke and didn’t see it coming. There are a lot of fundamental issues here. But you don’t find Democrats running on them. Instead, you know, my old White House colleagues, Rahm Emmanuel and Bruce Reed, and a handful of other sort of consultant types in Washington, have made most of the congressional candidates in this country sound exactly the same.

The usual Democratic strategy, no doubt in part because of Rove, for — the usual Democratic strategy for winning is basically just to wait and hope the other side punts. You know, our grand plan is usually to win by default. This is a year in which people’s dissatisfaction with Bush is so strong, their desire to put him under some kind of political house arrest is so deep, that the strategy is going to work, I think almost certainly. They then, however, get up the next morning and then need to plan to govern, and it’s not evident — it’s not as evident to me as perhaps it is to John what exactly that will be.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Curry, if Lieberman were to win, while he says he will caucus with the Democrats, he doesn’t help the balance of power for Democrats in taking the Senate, right?

BILL CURRY: No, it’s a Democratic seat. One of the things that’s happened to Lamont, in fairness, we have three very competitive House races in this state. In the Second District, my lifelong friend, a great progressive, Joe Courtney is in a dead heat with former CIA operative, Rob Simmons. Diane Farrell challenging Chris Shays in Fairfield County, and Christopher Murphy challenging Nancy Johnson, the architect of our modern healthcare system, in the Fifth Congressional District, these are exciting races. They’re all in a dead heat. And frankly —

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, Nancy Johnson is the architect of the modern healthcare system?

BILL CURRY: Well, in a very real way, Nancy Johnson has been the single most influential member of her party in Washington on healthcare for the quarter century that she sat in Congress. She chairs the Subcommittee on Healthcare at Ways and Means. And it would actually — if you were to simply say, “Who is the living American who has most given us this debacle of a health system?” it’s hard to imagine who, other than Nancy Johnson, you would suggest for that honor. Again, it’s like the experience argument, you know: how do you feel that’s working?

Nancy was also a key architect of the Gingrich revolution, an important lieutenant in his fight to take over power, and then the chair of the Ethics Committee, who began the process of the Ethics Committee no longer doing its job at all, staving off investigations past an election, and then finally leaving the position herself, but creating a tendency there that’s lasted a long time, to turn a blind eye to obvious misdeeds.

And so, in that race again, we’re all aware of the problem. You know, the Republicans are hanging their hats on it, that people like their own congressman so much, the congressman’s personal favorabilities are higher. Most Americans only learn about their own congressmen from the congressmen’s taxpayer-funded mailings and self-flattering press releases and ads. There aren’t enough reporters left from the states, even covering Washington, to tell them anything else. So the Congress is at an all-time low, because we have the data of the news and the quality of our own lives to help us evaluate the institution, but all we have on the individual members is what they tell us about themselves. Therefore, you have this odd phenomenon of individual congressmen being very popular, despite the fact that the institution is detested. And in Connecticut, they’re hoping that will happen.

You also have had gerrymandering as a factor here in a very strong way, and all three Republican incumbents will outspend their challengers by a substantial margin. Nevertheless, what it feels like here is such a strong tide coming in, that it’s just one of those deals where I think it’s far too much. And even though I don’t think the Democratic candidates have done a very good job of arguing the differences, I think the really important debates right now are going on inside people’s own heads, and they’re just taking a look at what they see at their own lives, in Iraq, at the squalor in Washington, and they’re going to vote to change this.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Curry, you’re talking to us from Connecticut. But you’re look at races in the Northeast. What about Rhode Island, a very close race there for Senate?

BILL CURRY: Rhode Island and Connecticut, you know, each state is about, you know, like the size of Monaco. And we’re very similar in some ways. But Rhode Island is a much more Democratic state. Connecticut, actually, we’re a blue state, but we’re a swing state. Three of those five House seats have been Republican now for a long time. We’ve had a Republican governor. I lost twice to a multiple felon, John Rowland, running for governor, an unusual distinction. We swing back and forth in the presidential races.

Rhode Island is much more deeply a Democratic state. And Sheldon Whitehouse is — again, he’s sort of the perfect profile of what the Democratic Party likes to run. He’s a former prosecutor. He’s a former attorney general, where you could develop a strong patina of consumer activism. I think he is a decent candidate, by the way, and I think right now that he’s ahead. I know that that’s the closest of the four races that people say lean strongly to the Democrats. But given the nature of the state and the qualities of the two candidates, in the end I think that will be Sheldon Whitehouse’s to lose, and I don’t think he will. I think he’ll take it.

AMY GOODMAN: Lincoln Chafee has not exactly been a favorite son of the Republican Party, though his father also was a senator.

BILL CURRY: No, no. Although, yes, there’s a strong family — Lincoln Chafee, who was a blacksmith, actually shoed horses at a racetrack for a number of years and then became a mayor in, I believe, Warwick, Rhode Island, and then advanced to the family, you know, barony of the Senate seat. And I think that he seems like a nice guy, when you see him on C-SPAN. He has broken with his party a number of times.

But there are two issues that are out there. By the way, the Republicans are coming in. And as with Chris Shays in Connecticut, who had never run negative ads and had always been more of a maverick, now that they’re aligned with their parties, these guys are running campaigns that would make you cringe.

And the basic question here, even for all these undecided voters in the middle — I mean, in our country, two groups of people vote their interest with ruthless intelligence: the very rich and the very poor. In the middle are a lot of confused people. And one of the things that they like to say is “I don’t vote the party. I vote the person.” I think this is the first year in my adult life in which no one’s said that to me, that the fundamental argument that John Nichols was raising earlier — you have a constitutional system of checks and balances that’s had no checks and no balances, and it’s not a question of whether Democrats are going to come in and conduct witch hunts. People desperately want to see oversight of the executive branch by the legislative branch of government. And I just think that in the end, as all this sludge of the 30-seconds ads fades, as all of this now — as we come to the end of it, the voters stop listening, and the real important debates are within themselves, and they are going to vote for some kind of accountability.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Curry, I want to thank you very much for being with us, former Connecticut state comptroller and state senator.

BILL CURRY: My pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: He was the Democratic nominee for governor twice, now writes a weekly column for the Hartford Courant.

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