Lieberman wins!

The three-term incumbent senator was beaten by a political unknown, but on election night his team was already spinning it as a victory.

Published August 9, 2006 1:05PM (EDT)

Just minutes before Sen. Joe Lieberman took the stage at Hartford's Goodwin Hotel to concede that he had lost his primary to challenger Ned Lamont, Lieberman supporter Lanny Davis was talking about a Lieberman victory.

Peering over at television screens in the back of the ballroom that showed Lieberman down four points with more than 80 percent of the precincts in, Davis, a longtime friend of Lieberman's, a former special counsel to President Clinton and a prominent volunteer in Lieberman's campaign, turned to a reporter and said, "Tonight's theme is he's the 'Comeback Kid.'"

"We're down a few points, so it looks like right now, we gained 10 points in a week," Davis said. "I mean, the Quinnipiac poll had [Lieberman] down 13 points a week ago. If he loses by four points tonight, that's an amazing comeback. So he's the 'Comeback Kid,' and he'll win the general election by 20 points."

Whether Davis intended it or not, the moniker is reminiscent of his former employer, who earned the nickname in the process of winning the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination and, eventually, the White House. It's an image the Lieberman campaign appeared eager to embrace Tuesday night, as it tried to spin a come-from-behind victory out of a four-point loss to a political unknown who had been down by 15 points just two months ago.

But before Lieberman's supporters and aides knew how close their man would eventually pull, such optimism was in short supply.

Around 9 p.m., as returns showed Lamont with a commanding advantage -- the earliest numbers had Lamont with 60 percent of the vote to Lieberman's 40 -- Lieberman's supporters had to take hope where they could get it, cheering not for a Lieberman lead but for a smaller Lamont victory.

Watching one TV that showed Lieberman trailing 56-43 with 38 percent of the votes in, one man shouted, "We're on the move, at least! We're on the move!" Next to him, a woman said, "It's looking better. We're up one every time. Every time, we're up one, he's down one."

By 10 p.m., though, with a solid majority of the precincts reporting and Lieberman still hovering three or four points behind, the excitement dimmed. If the faces of the Lieberman faithful weren't grim, they certainly weren't happy, and even the handful who had quietly chanted "Go, Joe, Go" to celebrate some of Lieberman's earlier gains were silent.

It was a marked contrast to the beginning of the night.

At around 6 p.m., just two hours before the polls were due to close, Lieberman campaign manager Sean Smith, his sleeves rolled up, his feet resting casually on a table in the media filing center, looked the picture of serenity. Chatting off the record with a few reporters, Smith cracked jokes and traded speculation about the recent increase in registered Democrats and what it would mean for the election. When a new arrival wandered in and asked Smith where she could find credentials, he joked, still smiling, "You're not a blogger, are you?"

"It may be the fatigue, beyond anything else," said Smith, explaining his calm to Salon. "But no, I feel good. We closed strong. Polls started showing that publicly, that as the election got closer, voters started realizing the real stakes involved and a lot of them started coming back home to us ... The truth is, we don't know what's going to happen. But I do feel like we closed with the right message, with the right amount of energy, and we have a get-out-the-vote operation the likes of which Connecticut has never seen before. I'm superstitious, so I won't say that I'm confident, but I'm optimistic."

Lieberman's supporters, vastly outnumbered by the local, national and even international press on hand to cover one of the country's most closely watched races, were similarly upbeat early on.

Linda Russo, a lawyer from East Hartford who was a volunteer for Lieberman, sported a button showing Lieberman and Clinton with their arms around each other. A jab at the campaign's most iconic image, an infamous kiss on the cheek between Lieberman and President Bush at the 2005 State of the Union address, Russo's button was emblazoned with bold letters reading "The Hug."

"I have no reason to be [nervous]," Russo said. "Because, to me, there's no competition. You're talking about a three-term incumbent United States senator, versus a man who made a fortune in the computer industry. What does he know about running the government? What does he know about the people and their needs? He talks about healthcare, what has he done?"

Walking the ballroom were Christopher Tracy and Tom McEachin, firefighters there to represent their union.

"We've had all of our firefighters in the state out supporting Sen. Lieberman, because we understand what he's going through. We push in on hot fires and fight no matter how hot they get, and he's stood by us," said Tracy, whose shirt proclaimed "Firefighters for Lieberman" in large letters.

"We're pretty confident," McEachin said. "We believe that the early poll numbers may have put a jolt in people, who now see that here's a man who's done a lot of great things for this state and could be in trouble."

Also there to support the incumbent was Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal, who was less enthusiastic. Asked whether he was confident Lieberman would prevail, Blumenthal, who had endorsed the senator, replied that he was "never confident of anything in a political campaign."

Blumenthal may also be called upon to oversee an investigation into an issue that dominated much of the campaign's last day, the alleged hacking of Lieberman's campaign Web site, which began experiencing technical problems Monday night. The Lieberman campaign has filed a complaint with Blumenthal's office.

An hour after the polls closed, more of Lieberman's supporters were beginning to sound like the noncommittal Blumenthal.

"I'm nervous," said Peter Lawson, the director of congressional and public affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed Lieberman. "He's drawing closer, but he's still down. I'm hoping that he's close enough that he decides to continue to run, whether it's as the Democratic nominee or as an independent, and we'll certainly be there to support him either way."

By that point, much of the talk among the assembled supporters, staff and reporters had turned away from Tuesday's primary and to November's general election, in which Lieberman had previously announced plans to run regardless of the primary results.

"Now the margin becomes the issue," Chris Barnes, a University of Connecticut pollster, said. "I think you have some Lieberman issues from the Connecticut political establishment, who are saying, 'All right, if he's going to lose, let him lose big so we [do] not have to go through the three-way race,' because the three congressional campaigns that are so important to controlling the House are in big trouble if this keeps going ... Less than six, [Lieberman] will stay in. That's the math I did, and a couple of people have told me you'll have a much harder chance of getting him out if it's six or below. Six to 10, up for grabs. Above 10, no way."

One Connecticut Republican staffer who had come to watch the post-primary party said he preferred Lieberman to Lamont but was conflicted about the prospect of a Lieberman independent run.

"Republicans are certainly torn, because if Joe Lieberman loses, and runs as an independent, as we expect, a lot of voters will come off the Republican vote. Some will vote for [Republican candidate] Alan Schlesinger, some will vote for Ned Lamont, but a lot will vote for Joe Lieberman, and they'll have to be brought back to our line for the congressional races. The other issue is if Lamont is in the race still, if he wins tonight, do a whole lot of activist liberals come out to vote ... If Lamont loses, I think a lot of people stay home. So strategically, I'm not sure what I think about what should happen tonight. But maybe it would be good if Lamont went away."

Shortly after 11, when Lieberman's son, Matt, took the stage, the question of whether Lieberman indeed still planned to run as an independent in November was answered.

"This is a campaign with exciting momentum going forward," the younger Lieberman said, just before introducing his father, who came to the podium to the strains of "Still the One" and shouts of "Joe! Joe! Joe!" from the small crowd of supporters.

Lieberman took only a moment to concede defeat before, flashing his trademark wide, upturned smile, he was back to his old self. In a concession speech that left no doubt as to his intentions, Lieberman attacked his opponent while in nearly the same breath portraying himself as above, and contemptuous of, the partisan fray.

"I am of course disappointed by the results," he said, "but I am not discouraged. I am disappointed not just because I lost, but because the old politics of partisan polarization won today. For the sake of our state, our country and my party, I cannot and will not let that result stand.

"I expect that my opponent will continue to do in the general election what he has done in the primary ... partisan polarizing instead of talking about how we can solve people's problems, insults instead of ideas. In other words, more of the same old partisan politics that has assailed Washington today.

"I will continue to offer Connecticut a different path forward. I went into public service to find solutions, not to point fingers. To unite, not to divide. To lift up, not to tear down. To make my community and country a better place to live and work."

Lieberman also took the opportunity to position himself, as his staffers would later, as the candidate with momentum entering the general election. Thanking his supporters, he emphasized his gratitude for their help in making "this a much closer race than all the pundits were predicting," and said the race was only half over.

"As I see it," he said, "in this campaign we've just finished the first half and the Lamont team is ahead. But in the second half, our team, Team Connecticut, is going to surge forward to victory."

Even before the address, Lieberman's staffers and supporters had begun delivering this new message, an in-case-of-defeat scenario they had developed in the closing days of the campaign. Lamont had used his personal fortune to run a campaign that distorted Lieberman's record; the Lieberman campaign's only failing was in not standing up to the distortions earlier. Now that they had, in a last-minute speech Lieberman gave Sunday night, the tide was turning, if too late to save the primary. It was a game of expectations, a message similar to that put out by Lieberman's failed 2004 presidential campaign, which, only days before he dropped out, had attempted to portray the senator's fifth-place finish in the New Hampshire primary as a three-way tie for third and a moral victory.

"Distortions only last a certain amount, and then it backlashes," Davis said before Lieberman's concession. "Remember what happened in Virginia -- Timothy Kaine was falsely accused of not being willing to implement the death penalty, and he finally went on the air and he looked into the camera and he said the ads run against me are lies. John Kerry did not do that on the Swift boats, [Max] Cleland did not do it on being morphed into Osama bin Laden, Joe Lieberman waited probably a little too late to declare that Ned Lamont was lying on these ads and he wasn't going to take it anymore, and the speech he gave Sunday night, I think he gained back five points in 24 hours ... He's going to win the general election by 20 percent. I'm taking bets. Who is Ned Lamont, does anybody know? He has no record -- unlike Joe Lieberman -- and we're going to blast him out of the water."

Asked after the speech whether he considered the results a win, campaign manager Smith said that he did, and agreed with Davis' characterization of his candidate as a "Comeback Kid."

"It felt like a win, it felt like a victorious atmosphere, and anytime that you're still going forward to the next election it feels like a win," Smith said. "Clearly Lieberman always knew he was going to face a tough challenge, going back to last year. The polls that had him way up earlier this year were not reflective of the way the race was ultimately going to go. He knew that, Ned knew that, we knew it, you guys knew it, and so the race tightened up. We spotted him a 13-point lead, but we came back and we gave him a run for his money, and I think that's more the type of Joe Lieberman you're going to see over the next three months, the one you saw over the last 10 days."

After he left the podium, Matt Lieberman struck a similar note.

"We're so proud of him, we are really feeling good about the momentum with which this campaign ended. People within the Democratic Party are coming towards my dad quickly, and the more people are listening, the more they're thinking, the more they're knowing that this is a guy who has been a great senator for them and delivered for them in 18 years."

Tracy and McEachin remained upbeat.

"Obviously, we're disappointed," McEachin said. "We worked really hard, we supported the best candidate by far ... [But] we're here, we support him 100 percent and we'll be with him until the end; we'll be back."

Only Russo, the volunteer from East Hartford with her "Hug" button, seemed to differ from the campaign's new message.

"The Democratic Party left me this evening," Russo said. "The Democratic Party does not represent the ideals that it has stood for [for] generations. Joe Lieberman does. I will be supporting him right through November ... The voters of Connecticut [were] easily misled. They don't pay attention to the issues, they didn't think things through, and this is the result."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2006 Elections