By Aaron Blake - 07/13/06 12:00 AM EDT
The pledge by Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) to run for reelection as an independent if he loses the Connecticut Democratic primary has left Senate Democrats divided about how much to support him and provided fodder for Republicans to spotlight election-year divisions among Democrats.
But a week after that announcement, three primary challengers to Democratic Senate front-runners in races that exemplified those divisions have joined with their former foes, endorsing them and calling for unity at an opportune time for the party.
The announcements came on three consecutive days, beginning Sunday, and in three competitive states Democrats are counting on if they are going to win a majority of the Senate: Ohio, Minnesota and Washington. They have also bolstered Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) Chairman Charles Schumer’s contention that unity and pragmatism are blossoming in his party this cycle.
Sen. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has asserted that there has been a “sea change” among Democrats, who are starting to be willing to compromise in order to win. He has cited primary victories by Democrats Jon Tester in Montana and Jim Webb in Virginia, saying voters chose the candidate with the best chance to win the general election even though they didn’t fit the Democratic prototype.
“Democrats are tired of losing,” Schumer said after Webb’s win in June.
DSCC spokesman Phil Singer said primary opponents are starting to buy into that idea as well: “One thing that’s been clear is that Democrats throughout the country recognize that there’s a need for unity going into November, and we’re happy that they’re acting on that.”
It is unclear how much Schumer leaned on the Democratic primary opponents to endorse their former opponents.
But Republicans have discounted Schumer’s assertion of unity by pointing back to Connecticut.
“Connecticut is the poster child of why he’s wrong,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) spokesman Brian Nick.
Some Democratic senators have pledged full support for Lieberman through the November election; some have said they will support the winner of the primary, whether it’s Lieberman or challenger Ned Lamont; and others are supporting Lieberman until the primary but haven’t decided beyond that.
“That’s as divided as you possibly can imagine,” Nick said. “If voters out there are looking at their own Democratic senators being as divided about this as they are, how in the world are they going to be pragmatic about it?”
Two of the candidates who endorsed former opponents — Ford Bell in Minnesota and Mark Wilson in Washington — were withdrawing from the race as well, but Paul Hackett’s very public feud with Ohio Democratic nominee Rep. Sherrod Brown and party leaders had festered since Hackett withdrew more than four months ago.
Hackett tried to put all that behind him this week, announcing his support for Brown at what was dubbed a “unity rally.”
After Hackett’s endorsement announcement, the NRSC released a sampling of Hackett’s quotes, which include a vulgar diatribe against Brown and a comment from last month that Brown has been “puking out the same old garbage” and not inspiring voters.
Hackett, a Marine Corps veteran who served in the Iraq war, had denounced the party, alleging that it worked to sink his candidacy, and had accused Brown of spreading rumors that Hackett’s Marine unit committed war crimes.
In Minnesota, Ford Bell was an underfunded long shot against Amy Klobuchar before announcing his support for her Tuesday.
Bell had been critical of Klobuchar’s unwillingness to commit to his call for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq or to supporting single-payer universal healthcare, and he said he would have dropped out if she embraced them. She hasn’t, but he still pulled out and told supporters the important thing is to defeat Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy in November.
Bell said his decision to drop out was due to lack of funds and that he felt no direct pressure from the national party. Even as he joined with Klobuchar, he made a point to mention his differences with her and the national party.
“Democrats nationally have not taken the strong stances that Democratic voters really long to see candidates take,” he said.
In Washington, Wilson was also a long shot promoting an immediate withdrawal from Iraq who had the endorsement of anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan. On Sunday he dropped his bid and announced that he would support Sen. Maria Cantwell and that he would join her campaign in a paid position.
Cantwell and Wilson have declined to say how much Wilson is being paid, and Republicans have accused the campaign of buying off challengers. Cantwell’s only remaining primary opponent, Hong Tran, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that Cantwell’s campaign has also courted her support but that she wasn’t sure it was a job offer.
“This pragmatic outlook that Schumer is highlighting doesn’t exist at all in that state,” Nick said. “To say that it exists when you had to offer people jobs and, in one case, money is just ridiculous.”
Cantwell has alienated many anti-war activists because she not only has declined to call for a withdrawal but has broken with many Democrats by expressing support for the war.
In June, a local chapter of the Democratic Party dropped its endorsement of Wilson in favor of supporting party unity. Wilson scoffed at the concept, telling The Seattle Times that “the incumbents are determined to protect each other over and beyond any Democratic values or rules.”
On Sunday he explained his significant change of heart: “There are differences that still exist with me and some positions taken by Senator Cantwell. What has changed is my strategy. It is better to work for change from within and to have a voice at the table.
“This is not a concession. My conviction is that supporting Senator Cantwell is the surest way to winning for us all.”