Ultimately, Lieberman’s hand was forced by the election calendar; petitions to run as an independent have to be filed on August 9, the day after the Democratic primary, and he needs to gather 7,500 signatures—not a one-day job. As Lieberman headed off to make his announcement on July 3 in front of the State House in Hartford, an aide told him, “I don’t know if this will kill us or help us.” Lieberman just smiled in reply. Many years ago, as a teenager waging a successful run for high-school class president, he printed up posters showing him crouched on his parents’ roof with the slogan VOTE OR I’LL JUMP. And so he jumped.
Lieberman thinks of going independent as a pragmatic ploy, not an abandonment of his party. “I’ve been a Democrat for 40 years, I’ll die a Democrat, I’ll probably be a Democrat after my death, I may still be voting Democrat in some cities in Connecticut postmortem,” he jokes. But his action was widely viewed as an astonishing act of hubris, an egotistic declaration that he, Joe Lieberman, was more important than his own party. “Joe bolting the party is a stark admission that things have gone terribly awry in Lieberman land,” says George Jepsen, a former Connecticut Democratic Party chairman who backs Lamont. A Democratic senator from another state said disapprovingly, “Look, you’re part of the Democratic Party or you’re not. Once you move away, you’re making yourself more important than what you’re supposedly doing. Is it more important for the individual to be in the Senate or the ideals and principles you represent?”
Democratic leaders are not just offended by the move, they’re worried about its potential political consequences. The possibility of a three-way race has raised at least the specter of the seat’s falling out of Democratic hands entirely. The current Republican candidate, former Derby mayor Alan Schlesinger, has seen his campaign implode in recent days amid allegations that he has a betting history under a false name, but the GOP is trying to force him off the ballot and recruit a stronger challenger. One name being floated is Jack Orchulli, the former CEO of Michael Kors, who won 34 percent of the vote when he challenged Senator Dodd in 2004. (Orchulli says he’d run again, if asked.) Republican leaders believe that if they can put up a candidate with name recognition and financial backing, the GOP could have a shot in a three-way race, especially with Jodi Rell at the top of the ticket. But Jennifer Duffy, editor of The Cook Political Report, which handicaps races, says the GOP will be hard-pressed to come up with a viable alternative: “There’s no one who can hit the ground running and raise the money to be competitive.”
Even if the Senate seat appears safe for the Democrats, other races could be affected by Lieberman’s decision. Nancy DiNardo, the Connecticut party chair, is concerned that a divisive Senate race is already diverting attention from the three House races in the state, where well-funded Democratic challengers have a real chance of knocking off GOP incumbents. DiNardo has endorsed Lieberman for the primary but says that if Lamont wins, she’ll back him in November. “I know what my role is.”
When I started floating this idea of running, people said, ‘You’re doing what? Who are you?’ ” says Ned Lamont. He’s on the road to Meriden on this late-June day, adding to the thousands of miles he’s put on his gray Ford hybrid SUV since he started this quixotic quest. “The party brass says, ‘Ned, we’ve got to support Lieberman, we’re a club, we stick together.’ ” He seems to delight in these stories about the early days now that he’s upended the race.
Lamont, who contributed to Lieberman’s presidential campaign in 2003, says that it was a series of eureka moments that made him decide to run against him. Event One was turning on Meet the Press in March 2005 and hearing the senator solemnly insist that the government was right to intervene in the fight over removing Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube. Lamont was appalled.
Event Two was Lieberman’s gung ho Iraq-war op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last year, which presented a rosy picture of progress (satellite dishes on the roofs!) and criticized Democrats who focus on how Bush took the country to war rather than being “concerned” about succeeding there. “I called all the political guys I knew in the state and said, ‘One of you guys ought to run,’ ” Lamont recalls. “People told me, ‘It’s impossible. If you feel so strongly, you do it.’ ”
His wife, Annie, was caught off guard when, in late December, “Ned rolled over in bed and told me he was thinking of running.” They stayed up most of the night talking. Annie, who has three children with Ned and is a longtime partner of the venture-capital firm Oak Investment Partners, was worried about the loss of privacy—“Your first reaction is to be ill”—but she gave him her blessing.