Election 2006: two races to savor

As the late, great comedian George Burns once joked, it’s too bad that all the people who really know how to run the country are busy driving taxi cabs and cutting hair.

So we’re left with the politicians.

If you like your politics colorful and unpredictable (I plead guilty), the U.S. Senate races in Connecticut and Virginia this fall should offer all of that and more: name calling, unintentional humor, twists and turns, and perhaps even a few moments of serious debate over the country’s foreign policy and future direction. And these races have some national implications.

Lieberman’s Independent Bid

Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman may have narrowly lost his party’s primary to anti-war candidate Ned Lamont, but he’s staying in as an independent. Sure, some prominent national Democrats, like Howard Dean, want him to drop out, and the Clintons (Bill and Hillary) have volunteered to campaign for Lamont, but Lieberman can now cast himself as the anti-Establishment underdog and Americans love underdogs (see, Bill “Comeback Kid” Clinton).

The latest Quinnipiac Poll finds Lieberman enjoying a 53%-41% lead over Lamont in a three-way race. The Republican candidate, Alan Schlesinger is polling at 4% and must, as the saying goes, feel like chopped liver: President Bush and other GOP heavies are dancing away from any support.

Can Lieberman hold onto his lead? One veteran observer thinks so:

“Sen. Lieberman’s support among Republicans is nothing short of amazing. It more than offsets what he has lost among Democrats. As long as Lieberman maintains this kind of support among Republicans, while holding onto a significant number of Democratic votes, the veteran Senator will be hard to beat,” said Quinnipiac University Poll Director Douglas Schwartz, Ph.D.

Lamont faces a classic Democratic political challenge—it makes sense to veer to the left in a Democratic primary, since left-of-center activists turn out heavily, but the problem is tacking back to the middle when the general election arrives. Having black leaders Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson flanking you during your primary victory speech may excite the liberal faithful, but it links you to two of the more controversial and divisive figures in Democratic politics. What’s more, Lieberman has shown a willingness to paint Lamont as squishy on terrorism—and it will be hard for the soft-spoken Lamont to convince independents and Republicans that he would match Lieberman’s conviction on the question.

It also doesn’t help when your campaign manager (Tom Swan) describes a pro-Lieberman city, Waterbury, as a place “where the forces of slime meet the forces of evil.” Lamont called the comments unfortunate and apologized to the city. Swan’s explanation? He wasn’t slurring Waterbury per se, but was referring to former Mayor Philip A. Giordano (serving a prison sentence on child sex charges) and former Gov. John G. Rowland (also in prison, for corruption). Don’t expect Lamont’s vote count to rise in Waterbury anytime soon.

George Allen’s Troubles

George Allen, Republican Senator from Virginia and a Presidential possible for 2008 would be well served to seek treatment for Potomac Fever, because even if he holds off Democratic challenger James Webb (former Reagan-era Secretary of the Navy) in November, his hopes for higher office are looking shakier every day.

Allen’s now infamous off-the-cuff comments about a Webb campaign worker (calling the college student of Indian descent “Macaca” and adding: “Welcome to America”) are more than problematic. Allen has offered a number of apologies and lame explanations for using the word “macaca,” which the Washington Post tells us, is not a word a Presidential wannabe should be using:

Depending on how it is spelled, the word macaca could mean either a monkey that inhabits the Eastern Hemisphere or a town in South Africa. In some European cultures, macaca is also considered a racial slur against African immigrants, according to several Web sites that track ethnic slurs.

It gets worse: some journalists are noting that Allen’s mother was raised in French Tunisia, where the word macaca is used as a racial slur, and wondering out loud if Allen was repeating something he heard as a child. And Allen has been dogged by stories of his teen-age fascination with the Confederate flag (and growing up in Southern California, as Allen did, means you can’t frame it as a matter of local culture) and other disturbing hints of what is called by some, kindly, “racial insensitivity.”

That’s where Allen is in trouble. The “macaca episode” seems to highlight Allen’s problems with race (just as the “Dean Scream” surfaced Democratic concerns about the Vermont governor’s stability and electability) and what many see as Allen’s tendency to off-the-cuff “frat-boy” comments.

Can James Webb, who is also running as an anti-war candidate, pick up ground on Allen? The most recent Mason-Dixon poll shows Allen with a 16-percentage-point lead over Webb—but that was before the “macaca incident” and, as USA Today noted, the poll also revealed that Allen’s support was “under 50%, a sign of potential trouble for a well-known incumbent.”

What’s Ahead

Both of these races will tighten after Labor Day.

Look for the “netroots,” Hollywood liberals, and anti-war Democrats to step up funding for Ned Lamont’s campaign against Lieberman. Further, expect a spirited debate on terrorism and the war in Iraq—a debate that Lieberman will win if he can convince voters that they are connected.

In Virginia, Webb will start to close the gap with Allen in mid-September. As Larry Sabato, University of Virginia political science professor, has noted, Allen has “never run against the tide,” and now must do so this in election as President Bush remains deeply unpopular in the state. And it will be hard for Allen characterize combat veteran and former Navy Secretary Webb as “weak on defense.”

My guess is that voters will turn to the candidate in these races they see as more serious, having more gravitas. It won’t be a matter of who supported Bush on the war in Iraq, in the end, but who is seen as better equipped to “advise and consent” on foreign policy.

That’s why I think that pro-war Joe Lieberman and anti-war James Webb will find themselves as Democratic colleagues in the U.S. Senate.

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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