Joe Lieberman is still tormenting Democrats — and he’s brought his son with him.
More than a decade ago, the former senator infuriated his party by endorsing John McCain and gutting the public option on Obamacare. Now, the Liebermans are causing problems for Democrats in a pair of critical Senate campaigns.
In the wild race for a Georgia Senate seat, Joe’s son Matt Lieberman could play spoiler and allow two Republicans to advance to a runoff. Democrats are calling on Matt to drop out in favor of the party’s preferred candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock, but he is unbowed.
About 1,000 miles north, Joe Lieberman has endorsed Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) in a race that Democrats likely need to win to seize the majority. Lieberman is even showing up in pro-Collins ads touting the independent bona fides of a Republican that liberals are eager to defeat.
Taken together, the events show a political family once at the peak of Democratic politics directly undermining Democrats’ bid to win the Senate and haunting the party nearly eight years after Joe Lieberman left office.
“I don’t think the word Lieberman has a lot of pull anywhere. Even in Connecticut,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who still smarts at how his party removed the public option at Joe Lieberman’s behest.
When he entered the race, Matt said his father encouraged him to get in. But now he says that old grudges against his father are creeping into his own race.
“For some number of people on the left it’s very easy to transfer whatever disdain they may have for Joe Lieberman onto his son and assume that however bad they thought he was, I’m more than … likely to be just that bad,” he said in an interview Thursday. “Is that necessarily fair? No. Does that matter? No, I get it, it’s part of politics.”
Democrats insist both the former Connecticut senator and his son will have little effect on the party’s goals of winning back the Senate and the presidency. Two polls showed Warnock leading the race this week and getting into the runoff, evidence that Democrats’ recent shame campaign against Lieberman may pay off. Plus, Warnock’s massive fundraising edge and TV spending advantage are eroding the name ID edge that Lieberman held most of the race.
“Raphael Warnock is our best chance and it’s not even close,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). As for his opinion of the Liebermans still working at odds with Democrats, he replied: “I’ll let other people connect those dots, which are relatively obvious. Especially as Joe is endorsing a Republican in Maine.”
Still, the problem is most acute in Georgia, where every Democrat from Stacy Abrams on down is calling on Matt Lieberman to stand aside. He has refused to do so, even as polling averages show him taking more than 10 percent of the state’s vote to Warnock’s 21 percent. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) and Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) are each over 20 percent.
Only the top two advance, and it’s not hard to envision a scenario in which Lieberman blocks Warnock, and Loeffler and Collins move forward.
The party’s campaign against Lieberman accelerated significantly on Thursday. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) endorsed Warnock just days after Barack Obama did, and the Working Families Party and Black Voters Matter launched a petition telling Lieberman to “drop out now.”
Matt Lieberman is also coming under harsh scrutiny for authoring a book that’s offended Black leaders in the state. “He is not fit to represent the state of Georgia,” said Wanda Mosley, a senior state coordinator for Black Voters Matter in Georgia.
“Any eligible citizen has a right to seek office. I would never want to discourage anyone from doing so,” she added. “However, in this instance, I personally would want him to step down.”
Joe’s effect in Maine is less certain, but he’s already playing a starring role in Collins’ campaign. In an advertisement, Joe Lieberman calls himself a “lifelong Democrat but I put my country first, always. That’s why I’m supporting Susan Collins.”
In an interview, Collins said she was unaware that Lieberman was planning the ad, which was aired by the Republican Jewish Coalition Victory Fund, but was “very touched” when she saw it. She said the endorsement “shows that among moderates of both parties, I have support and that they appreciate my attempts to bring people together.” Asked if he helped her in Democrat-leaning Maine, she replied: “Well, he was the vice-presidential candidate for the Democrats.”
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and prominent centrist Republican governors have also endorsed Collins. Joe Lieberman declined to comment for this story, as did Collins’ Democratic opponent, Sara Gideon.
Democrats are entirely unimpressed with him sticking his nose in the Maine race.
“Joe, in the twilight of his active political involvement, let’s just say became very bipartisan,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). As for Matt Lieberman, Durbin asked: “What party is he running in?”
Wary of giving Matt Lieberman any fuel to run as an anti-establishment outsider, Senate Democrats are declining to explicitly call on him to exit the race. But they are firmly behind his opponent.
“I’m supporting Warnock, I’m raising a lot of money for him, and I think he’s in a strong position to get the second slot,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who holds Joe Lieberman’s old seat. “I don’t generally go around calling on candidates to drop out of races. You should be able to win on your own merits, and I think Warnock should be able to.”
Local leaders have been more direct. Abrams, the popular former Georgia gubernatorial candidate, has called on Matt Lieberman to leave the race, as well as Ed Tarver, a former U.S. attorney who is also running but polling much lower.
The closer Nov. 3 comes, the more Democrats are piling on. Teresa Tomlinson, the former mayor of Columbus, Ga., said Lieberman could be a “political hero” for dropping out now; doing so might also preserve a chance at later running for office.
“It is absurd that he will not even address this in a way that is not tone deaf, which tells me it’s about privilege and entitlement,” said Britney Whaley, a senior political strategist for the Working Families Party in Georgia. “People should see what’s at stake and put pressure on this man to drop out of the race and actively throw support behind the candidate of their choice.”
Democrats’ concerns about getting locked out have lessened somewhat as Warnock has risen in the polls behind growing spending on TV and the raft of endorsements, including from Obama and Jimmy Carter. Warnock’s campaign announced he raised $13 million in the third quarter, six times what he raised the previous quarter
Warnock has spent $6.5 million on TV; Lieberman has spent just over $100,00, according to data from Advertising Analytics.
“He’s not going to drop out. The end. We know this,” said Nse Ufot of the New Georgia Project, a voter registration and turnout organization. “It’s unfortunate that ego sometimes gets in the way of doing what’s right for the good of the whole.”
Lieberman rejected such comments and said none of the polls, fundraising reports or endorsements have convinced him to leave the race.
“If I felt that I had no chance of winning and that my remaining in the race could create a meaningful chance of that two-Republican scenario occurring, I would drop out,” Lieberman said. “I would hope that if in the fourth quarter of this game, fortunes change, that Rev. Warnock would do the same.”