NED LAMONT IS AN UNLIKELY insurgent.
The founder of a small cable company that specializes in telecommunications systems for college campuses, Lamont is a wealthy man who speaks with the measured cadence of one who earns his living making deals, not political speeches. Yet the Greenwich businessman has got Connecticut Democrats all wired up: Lamont promises a primary run against Senator Joe Lieberman, an entrenched incumbent with national stature, a flush campaign account--and a firm hold on state party regulars that resembles the grip of an old-time political machine.
Lamont was, in fact, moved to challenge Lieberman himself in part because he could find no established Connecticut politician to take on the senator.
His journey began last fall, when Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha stirred Democrats around the country with his declaration that the Iraq War was a failure and that the troops should start coming home. Lamont found himself aghast at Lieberman's response: The senator endorsed George W. Bush's stay-the-course policy. "Does America have a good plan for doing this, a strategy for victory in Iraq?" the senator wrote in a column in--of all places--The Wall Street Journal. "Yes, we do."
A furious Lamont, whose only stint in elective office was as a town selectman in Greenwich, tried to enlist more prominent Democrats to challenge Lieberman. They all turned him down.
"It's kind of like General Motors, isn't it?" Lamont said in an interview, comparing a politician's ascent to the climb up the corporate ladder. "If you're assistant vice president, then you go to executive vice president and then maybe president. You don't challenge things like this."
So Lamont decided to take Lieberman on himself. It is, to say the least, no contest of equals.
LIEBERMAN HAS HELD PUBLIC OFFICE in Connecticut since 1970. He was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1988 and has pulled in upwards of 60 percent of the vote in his reelection contests. He leads comfortably in early polls that match him against Lamont or former governor Lowell Weicker, who briefly threatened to challenge Lieberman over the war. With more than three decades in public office, Lieberman's favor bank overflows with chits he can call in.
The most significant of these? His financial hold on the party apparatus. Lieberman provided nearly $1 million to the state party in 2000, the year he ran simultaneously for reelection to the Senate and as Al Gore's running mate. The senator is up front about the consequences a primary would have on the state party's treasury: If he must fend off a challenger, money just won't be available to Connecticut Democrats for their own campaign operations, their May convention, or for tough, targeted House races against Republicans Chris Shays and Rob Simmons. "A credible primary challenge would make that difficult," Lieberman campaign manager Sean Smith says.
Lieberman, said one state party official, has been "incredibly generous" to the party in the past--a generosity the hierarchy clearly would like him to sustain.
The Hartford convention coming up in May is likely to be the scene of the campaign's first showdown. To force a primary through convention rules, Lamont would have to be endorsed by 15 percent of delegates. That's a substantial threshold-especially at an event for which Lieberman's contributions provide support.
It's so substantial, in fact, that a federal court in 2003 threw out as unconstitutional a state law that had granted access to the primary ballot solely to candidates who could win 15 percent of party delegates. …