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Iraq Dominates Senate Races in Connecticut and Rhode Island

This election offers the chance for the Democrats to dump the pro-war senators Joe Lieberman and Lincoln Chafee. How their opponents talk about Iraq could determine who wins.
 
 
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With only a few weeks left until the midterm elections, the war in Iraq is still the most dominant issue nationwide. The fact that the Bush administration has chosen to stay the course on a highly unpopular war bodes well for Democrats, who need only six seats to control the Senate. Control of the upper house for the Dems, however, won't come easy.

The Republicans have thrown their weight behind two key Senate races in New England by supporting a moderate Republican and a conservative Democrat in states that, in the past few elections cycles, have been as blue as they come. While Joe Lieberman is running as a third-party candidate after losing the primary to Ned Lamont, Lieberman's hawkish support of the war and President Bush has given him a boost from the GOP.

Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, Democratic challenger Sheldon Whitehouse currently leads in the polls over one-term incumbent Lincoln Chafee. Yet, Whitehouse is attempting to unseat the only Republican senator who voted against the war. During an era of extreme partisanship, it seems counterintuitive for the GOP to support a left-leaning Republican, much less a Democrat. Obviously, Republicans realize just how crucial an issue the war has become, and how narrow the gap is between a senate majority for the other side.

Connecticut counts

Anti-war fervor reached a fever pitch nationwide this past August when Lamont defeated Lieberman in the Connecticut primary. Turnout was double the norm for a primary, with 99 percent of precincts reporting. The story instantly became national news. Here was a three-term incumbent, who six years ago had been the Democratic hopeful for vice president, losing to a businessman whose political background was limited to serving as a selectman in Greenwich. Then, Lieberman defied his own party's wishes by running for the Senate as an independent.

What was so remarkable about the Connecticut primary, however, wasn't merely that a senior senator was unseated by a political neophyte. Rather, it was Lamont's anti-war stance that commanded national attention. Lamont, along with the slew of liberal bloggers who championed him, were sending a clear message across the country that Lieberman's unwavering support of the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act was unacceptable. A Quinnipiac Poll from early August revealed that 36 percent of voters backed Lamont simply because Lieberman supported the war; another 54 percent said the war was only one reason for choosing Lamont.

At the time of the primary, pollster John Zogby said, "This was a small state election, but the ramifications could impact races across the country this fall. One thing is clear -- the Lamont win was an important development on the road to the midterm elections this November." Immediately following the primary, however, polls indicated that Lamont, like Democratic candidates nationwide, might have more difficulty running on an anti-war platform alone.

As soon as Lieberman decided to run as a third-party candidate, a Rasmussen Poll gave him a five-point lead over Lamont. Since then, Zogby, Rasmussen and Quinnipiac have all indicated that Lieberman's lead has widened to 10 points. (In this race, Republican candidate Alan Schlesinger has been a virtual non-factor in the polls because GOP support has largely gone to Lieberman.) Why then, was there so much ado about the possibility of an anti-war challenger defeating a hawkish Democrat in the primary? According to Doug Schwartz, director of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute, "The Connecticut primary became the focal point for anti-war voters because the summer is a slow political time." While the midterm elections were not yet in full swing, opponents of the war were able to grab the national spotlight by unseating a high-profile Democrat whose views have become alarmingly conservative in recent years.

Once an archrival of President Bush, Lieberman has backed the Bush administration in Iraq from the very beginning. Not only was Lieberman vigorously in favor of the invasion, but he has repeatedly defended Bush's handling of the war. Lieberman still believes that Bush has a sound plan for victory and refuses to call on the president for a timetable for troop withdrawal. Backing Ned Lamont became political retaliation for Lieberman's rank-breaking with the Democratic consensus on the war. In fact, Lieberman's newfound loyalty to the GOP doesn't stop with the situation in Iraq. He contradicted the Democrats again last week when he supported Dennis Hastert in the wake of the Mark Foley fiasco. The question remains why Lamont lost so much ground in the polls since his narrow victory in the primary, especially when the majority of Americans are still strongly oppose to the war. Doug Schwartz explained that in the most recent Quinnipiac Poll, the war in Iraq was still the No. 1 issue for Connecticut voters. Roughly 25 percent wanted immediate withdrawal and another 25 percent called for a slower reduction of troops. "But that was just one of seven issues," Schwartz added. "So while Iraq got more than any other single issue with 35 percent, Lieberman is winning on all of the other issues, including terrorism and the economy."

Scott Rasmussen, of the Rasmussen Polls, believes what has happened in Connecticut to be a clear case of campaigning in the primary versus campaigning during the general election. "It's not that the war is becoming less of an issue in Connecticut," he wrote in an e-mail interview. "It's just being framed in a slightly different context." According to Rasmussen, Lieberman and the Republicans have succeeded in linking the war in Iraq to the war on terrorism. "The GOP does best when the issue is national security," he claimed. "Not as well as it used to do, but the Democrats are still struggling to recover from their post-Vietnam national security image."

Whether or not Lamont regains his anti-war momentum will be the deciding factor in the Connecticut Senate race. Bloggers like Chris Bowers of MyDD feel the election is still within Lamont's reach. "Lamont's running a better on-the-ground campaign, and his voter-targeting is vastly superior," Bowers said. Bowers called Lieberman's de facto Republican candidacy "pathetic" and contended that even if Lieberman receives 70 percent of Republican votes in the coming election, Lamont could still win if he continues to align Lieberman with Bush.

And in this corner ...

Democrats seem to stand a better chance of picking up a Senate seat in Rhode Island than Connecticut, where the war in Iraq is an equally thorny topic. As in Connecticut, the war figures to be a top issue among voters. The difference here, however, is that Lincoln Chafee presents a unique challenge since he was the only Senate Republican who voted against the resolution to go to war. Nevertheless, Chafee's opponent, former U.S. Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse, maintains a single-digit lead in the polls primarily because of his anti-war agenda.

Chafee was appointed in 1999 when his father, Sen. John Chafee, died in office. Like his father, Lincoln Chafee is conservative when it comes to economics but a social moderate on most other issues, particularly the war. In 2004, Chafee criticized the Bush administration for its postwar reconstruction plans in Iraq. He has asserted publicly that our country is less secure now than it was prior to the invasion. Yet, Chafee has been ambiguous about his future plans for Iraq and under what conditions he would support a timetable for troop withdrawal.

Whitehouse, by contrast, has been abundantly clear on his plans for getting our country out of Iraq. According to Alex Swartsel, Whitehouse's communications director, "Whitehouse understands that the war is a big issue just crying out to be addressed." If elected, Whitehouse plans to bring our troops home within 6-8 months, leaving the final decisions ultimately in the hands of military commanders currently on the ground. Swartsel asserted that Iraqi factions would have an incentive to "get their act together" if the United States pulled out. "Our presence in Iraq has become less productive than provocative," she said. Paramount to Whitehouse's plan is troop safety, but he believes that withdrawing militarily would sap the rally call of insurgents.

The Whitehouse campaign maintains that while Chafee did vote against the war four years ago, he hasn't done much to oppose it since. In fact, Chafee has only become more vague on his war position, which Chris Bowers of MYDD said was not surprising. "The reason Chafee hasn't come out much on the war," Bowers exclaimed, "is he has to keep the people who voted for Laffey in line." Stephen Laffey was Chafee's right-wing opponent during the recent Rhode Island primary.

Chafee's purposefully vague tactics do not seem to be working. A new Rasmussen poll from Oct. 4 shows Whitehouse leading Chafee 51 percent to 42 percent. That poll opens Whitehouse's lead to 6 points in a five-poll average. Scott Rasmussen told me that the decision in Rhode Island is actually about whether the state wants to continue sending a Republican to the Senate. "If Rhode Island voters believe that their vote could determine control of the U.S. Senate," Rasmussen said, "then Chafee is in real trouble."

It is no surprise that the GOP has backed both Lieberman and Chafee. The true Republicans in these states -- Schlesinger in Connecticut and Laffey in Rhode Island -- never stood much of a chance. But if both Lieberman and Lamont win, as current polls suggest, then the Democrats still pick up a Senate seat since Lieberman is technically a Democrat. That said, three weeks is still plenty of time for Ned Lamont to kick his campaign into high gear if he wants to defeat a Republican in Democratic clothing.

Zack Pelta-Heller is a regular contributor to AlterNet.

 
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