Dem Underdogs Surge in Primaries
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Antiwar challenger Ned Lamont's defeat of prowar Senator Joe Lieberman in Connecticut's Democratic primary is generally accepted as a referendum-like victory for the message that progressives have been urging the Democratic Party to embrace. But the 2006 primary season--which will see its busiest day September 12, when nine states and DC pick nominees for national seats--ought to be seen as a series of referendums on the war. Lamont's win was not the first of its kind since The Nation pledged last year to identify and support only those candidates prepared to bring a speedy end to the war ["Democrats and the War," November 28], nor, we hope, will it be the last.
Montana Senate contender Jon Tester and Iowa House contender Bruce Braley won primary contests before Lamont bested Lieberman August 8, and September primaries could see additional wins for candidates who want to start bringing troops home from Iraq. Some of the most telling contests will take place in Maryland. In the crowded Democratic primary to replace retiring Senator Paul Sarbanes, former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume staked out a strong antiwar position early by joining a summer 2005 rally supporting the demand by Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq, for a meeting with George W. Bush. Mfume highlights his participation in protests against the war and features a "cost of war" ticker on his campaign website. That's in stark contrast to the other frontrunner, Representative Ben Cardin, who opposed authorizing the President to go to war but has failed to join the push for an exit strategy by the House Out of Iraq Caucus. Last year he voted against California Democrat Lynn Woolsey's call for a withdrawal plan, and his campaign pronouncements about the war have been distinctly cautious.
The Maryland Senate race is complicated by several less prominent candidates who have taken strong antiwar positions, but polls suggest that the contest is between Mfume and Cardin--who have split major endorsements from unions and top Democrats. A Mfume win would be another signal that grassroots Democrats want their party to join the clear majority of Americans who would like to start bringing troops home soon. A similar message could come from the state's 3rd Congressional District, where the primary frontrunner in the contest to replace Cardin, John Sarbanes, the retiring senator's son, says, "The Democratic leadership in Congress must take action immediately--that means today--by petitioning the President to deliver to the appropriate committees in Congress within thirty days two proposed disengagement plans for Iraq: one that would bring our troops home within six months; the other that would bring them home within twelve months."
But the Maryland race that most closely resembles the Lamont-Lieberman contest is playing out in the state's 4th Congressional district, where Donna Edwards, former executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, is mounting an aggressive antiwar challenge to Democratic Representative Al Wynn, who voted to authorize Bush to wage the war and who has backed the Administration on a host of other issues. Says Edwards, "Albert Wynn is Maryland's Joe Lieberman."
In Rhode Island another test of sentiments regarding the war will come in a Republican primary, where moderate Lincoln Chafee, the only GOP senator to oppose going to war, is being challenged by Steve Laffey, who has big-money support from the conservative Club for Growth. A Chafee win would set up a rare November race between two war critics, since the Democratic primary candidates share Chafee's skepticism about Iraq. The more tepidly antiwar Sheldon Whitehouse, a former state attorney general, is the clear frontrunner, but retired Marine Carl Sheeler has run a spirited "Bring Home the Troops" campaign that calls for the President's impeachment for deceiving Congress and the American people.
Every vote Sheeler wins against Whitehouse, the choice of party leaders, will tell Washington Democrats that party activists want to see more muscular opposition to Bush and his war. The same goes for votes cast in the New York Senate primary for former National Writers Union president Jonathan Tasini, who is taking on Hillary Clinton. The Lamont win in neighboring Connecticut is focusing attention on Tasini's antiwar challenge to Clinton, who has responded by edging away from her Lieberman-like support for the Administration's stay-the-course policy. Even with the New York Times telling Clinton she should debate Tasini--if only to clarify exactly where she now stands--the low-budget challenge to the presumed frontrunner for the party's 2008 presidential nomination faces daunting odds. But Tasini's run has succeeded in making the war what it should be in every 2006 contest: the central issue.
John Nichols is The Nation's Washington correspondent.