How quickly Ned Lamont’s fortunes have changed. Once the consummate dark horse candidate, the Connecticut businessman and cable television entrepreneur began his run for senate last January “as less than an asterisk” on the ballot, as he put it recently. Beyond serving as a Greenwich selectman and a failed bid for state Senate in 1990, Lamont’s political bona fides are sparse at best, particularly when paired with those of his opponent, three-term incumbent and former vice presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman. In a strange twist of fate, it’s Lieberman who’s now on the ropes. Forced off the democratic ballot after Lamont’s slim win in Connecticut’s senate primary in August, Lieberman is running as an independent, canvassing his district door-to-door to secure support, and, all told, campaigning like he’s the political newcomer.
Though his name recognition was once close to nil, Lamont, backed by strong netroots support, has raised his profile to the point where even Vice President Dick Cheney has singled him out for attack, holding a conference call with reporters after the Connecticut primary to portray Lamont’s anti-war platform as a victory for Al Qaeda and their ilk. At a campaign stop the following day, Lieberman made similar comments, certainly not dispelling the notion that he’s all too cozy with the Republican leadership.
After spending the last few months barnstorming Connecticut, Lamont took his campaign to Washington on Wednesday, meeting with reporters, union members, and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill. Speaking to reporters at an event hosted by The American Prospect, he laid out his platform on issues from health care to foreign policy, returning often to a topic that has been the bread and butter of his candidacy: knocking Lieberman’s sometimes questionable allegiance to his party and unwavering support for the Iraq war. “Everyday Joe Lieberman is coming out of his closet,” he said on Wednesday. “He’s more and more politically allied with the Republicans; he’s more and more allied with Karl Rove.” He added, “Increasingly he’s acting like the de facto Republican candidate.” As evidence of Lieberman’s Republican links, Lamont’s campaign manager, Tom Swan, pointed to a report this week in the conservative news magazine, Insight, which asserts that the White House has funneled money to Lieberman’s campaign through Republican donors at the direction of Rove and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman. Swan also mentioned an ad campaign backing Lieberman launched by Veterans for Freedom, a 527 committee with Republican ties that he likened to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group that ran attack ads against Senator John Kerry during his presidential run.
Much of the coverage of the Lamont-Lieberman race has centered on their positions on Iraq, with Lieberman advocating the president’s “stay the course” line and Lamont calling for a phased withdrawal of troops, while maintaining a U.S. presence in the country to aid with reconstruction and humanitarian assistance. But Lamont has recently taken pains to stress that he’s not simply a one-issue candidate, and in Washington he spoke at length about his views on health care, a system he said is “fundamentally broken.”
“What’s going on is the incredibly high cost of health insurance is beginning to put us at a terrible competitive disadvantage around the country, beginning to bankrupt big business and small business alike,” he said. “Businesses are walking away from their historical obligation to provide health insurance for their employees. They’re pushing more and more of the load onto workers.” An advocate of universal health care, Lamont has put forth a plan that, among other things, would provide subsidies to small businesses to help cover rising health care costs and he supports initiatives to require employers to provide coverage for their employees. On Tuesday, he unveiled his education platform, which includes a plan to fund early childhood education on a sliding scale basis, an attempt to level the playing field for children of all socioeconomic backgrounds.
Instead of letting his political inexperience be seen as a weakness, Lamont has sought to play it to his advantage. “I’m coming to this race as an outsider, and I’m coming to this race as a guy who wants to shake things up,” he said. He has often spoken out against the millions of dollars in earmarks that are slipped into pending legislation and the influence of lobbyists on the political process. On Wednesday Lamont repeated his campaign pledge to swear off campaign contributions from political action committees and lobbyists, adding that if elected he would come to Washington “unencumbered.” His declaration, however, is slightly misleading. According to campaign finance records, Lamont, whose campaign funding has largely come out of his own pocket, has received more than $250,000 from MoveOn.org’s PAC. (Liz Dupont-Diehl, Lamont’s communications director, said his campaign draws a distinction between corporate-funded PACs and those like MoveOn’s, which receive small contributions from many individual donors.) Lieberman, for his part, has received more than $1.4 million from a variety of political action committees that represent defense contractors and oil companies, among other corporate interests.
Though Lamont is still riding high from his primary win and seems confident he will “turn out the vote” in November, he still faces a tough race, particularly if Lieberman receives strong Republican backing and even a healthy minority of the Democratic vote. Recent polls have Lamont trailing Lieberman by anywhere from 2 to 10 percentage points, and he acknowledged that his campaign is “running behind” with moderate and independent voters. In the coming weeks, he said he plans to reach out to this segment aggressively. As Swan put it, “We’re going to play to win with unaffiliated voters.”