Heading to the polls as fighting between Israel and Hezbollah intensified last week, hundreds of undecided Jewish Democrats in Connecticut may have decided to back Sen. Joe Lieberman rather than his primary challenger, Ned Lamont.
Although Lieberman narrowly lost by an overall margin of 52-48 percent in a race that saw a higher-than-usual turnout of 45 percent, an exit poll of 2,669 voters by CBS News and the New York Times showed him winning 61 percent of the Jewish vote.
Though not enough to boost him to victory, as a larger share of the Jewish vote might have in such a narrow race, Lieberman’s share of the Jewish vote was better than the 50 percent quietly predicted by Democratic insiders in the weeks before the vote, as Lamont’s popularity surged.
A top Jewish strategist in the Lamont campaign attributed that shift to a sense that Jews could not abandon an incumbent pro-Israel senator while the Jewish state was engaged in its biggest conflict in decades.
“We presumed the Jewish vote to have been more than 50 and perhaps around 60 percent for Lamont two weeks out,” said David Pudlin, a former Connecticut legislative leader now working for Lamont. “My guess is that sometimes, when there is a war, one is afraid of change. And the war in Lebanon, for many of us in the Jewish community was, and is, damn frightening.”
Pudlin predicted, however, that as an independent Leiberman faces off against Lamont and Republican Alan Schlesinger in the November general election, “people will ask the second question, which is how did we get here?” That, he said, would lead to a decision about whether the war in Iraq — which Lieberman supports and Lamont ardently opposes — contributed to the Lebanon conflict and whether it, and the Bush administration’s foreign policy helps Israel’s long-term security overall.
“Ned Lamont has said pretty firmly that the war in Iraq has not made the situation more safe and led to the election of Hamas and the empowering of Hezbollah,” said Pudlin.
Lieberman spokesman Dan Gerstein said Tuesday that Lamont’s Middle East views show “a level of naiveté that is real cause for concern … The suggestion that Hezbollah attacked Israel because we’re in Iraq has no basis in fact and ignores a long history of violence and terrorism.” Gerstein also faulted Lamont for campaigning during the conflict with two House members, Marcy Kaptur of Ohio and Maxine Waters of California, who had declined to back a resolution denouncing Hezbollah. “If he wants to reassure people that he supports Israel in a crisis, this was probably not the best thing,” said Gerstein.
Jews make up about 5 percent of the Connecticut electorate.
A pollster for Quinnipiac University, Douglas Schwartz, who is working on his own poll of the Senate race, noted that the CBS/Times exit poll’s margin of error for subgroups was high, but that the 61-39 figure for the Jewish vote seemed valid because the sample size for Jews likely exceeded the unwritten benchmark of 100. “It’s likely that Lieberman won the Jewish vote,” said Schwartz.
Still, for a political icon — the first Jew on a major party’s national ticket — to lose as much as 40 percent of the Jewish vote is another bruise in a long season of travails for Lieberman.
“He got the support of most Jews, but not at all an overwhelming number of Jews, and that is why he lost,” Rabbi Marc Gellman of Temple Beth Torah in Dix Hills wrote in a Newsweek online commentary. “He lost because of Barbra Streisand’s highly publicized contribution to Lamont and because of the number of Jews who hated Bush and the war more than they loved Joe.”
Jews oppose the Iraq war in larger numbers than non-Jews — by as much as 70 percent according to a poll by the American Jewish Committee. But the majority who seemed to have voted for Lieberman evidently did not consider the war the defining issue in the race, as Lamont and many of his supporters have framed it.
Lieberman and his backers have insisted his work securing jobs and projects for his constituents and his history of voting with his caucus on most domestic issues would mitigate the anti-war antipathy.
Meanwhile, Lieberman is picking up an unlikely ally — and retaining the support of a longtime Democratic friend — as he wages his independent re-election campaign.
The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), which has not hesitated to take potshots at Lieberman in the past, launched an ad campaign this week touting Lieberman’s support of Israel and lambasting Democrats for nominating Lamont.
Lieberman has been “a critically important voice in the Democratic Party for a secure America, waging war on and against radical Islamic terror and being an unyielding ally and supporter of Israel,” said RJC director Matt Brooks in an interview. “Now that the Democrats have thrown him out of the Democratic Party he will be sorely missed.”
Meanwhile, New York’s most powerful state Democratic official, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, is continuing to back Lieberman, even as his colleagues rally around Lamont, The Jewish Week has learned.
While Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton and other officials here have pledged their support for their party’s nominee against Lieberman and Schlesinger, sources say Silver — a close friend of Lieberman and virtually the sole New York backer of his failed 2004 presidential bid — will continue to help Lieberman’s fundraising.
Silver’s chief of staff, Judy Rapfogel, would only say that the two men were “long-time personal friends and will continue to be friends regardless of what happens” in the election.
Lieberman also has the backing here of Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Democratic mayor Ed Koch, who may soon make campaign appearances with Lieberman.
But the support of the Republican Jewish Coalition suggests that the GOP is viewing Lieberman as their candidate, rather than Schlesinger, who has been embroiled in a gambling scandal and has little name recognition.
“In a perfect world they would want a viable Republican,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “But given the choice between Lamont and Lieberman, they would surely rather have Lieberman.”
Lieberman has ruled out a run on the Republican ballot if Schlesinger were to drop out, saying he would vote with the Democrats and act as part of the caucus if elected as an independent.
Brooks said his organization does not endorse candidates. But he added that the primary vote against Lieberman suggests that far-left figures were now a “prevalent part” of the Democratic Party mainstream. He mentioned in particular anti-war protestor Cindy Sheehan, anti-Bush filmmaker Michael Moore, activist Rev. Al Sharpton and Michigan Rep. John Dingell, whose recent comments about not taking sides between Israel and Hezbollah caused a controversy.
Responding to the ads, Ira Forman of the National Jewish Democratic Council accused the RJC of hypocrisy. “They took out a full page in The New York Times in 2000 ridiculing Joe Lieberman for saying he would meet with Farrakhan,” said Forman. “Who do they think they’re fooling? You can’t have it both ways.”
Brooks said he had criticized the senator “when Lieberman wasn’t being Lieberman, doing things inconsistent with what is special about [him], like wanting to meet with people from the Nation of Islam and flip-flopping on Israel to match the views of Al Gore.”
Continuing to view Lieberman as a Democrat, Forman said the Connecticut primary “was not about Israel or the Jewish community … Connecticut will have a pro-Israel senator if either Democrat is elected. Any suggestion otherwise is a distortion of the truth.”