"There are a lot of people who feel that 18 years is enough for a senator."
-Joe Lieberman, on the 1988 campaign trail. (Ravo)
They had found their savior at last. He was a wealthy Greenwich businessman, from a family with long-established political credentials and name recognition, but, most importantly, the hardcore party activists felt he was one of them.
Many of the party faithful couldn’t stand the incumbent senator. He had constantly infuriated and confounded them by going against his party in all-too-public ways, and had embarrassed them by running then abandoning a miserable failure of a presidential campaign two years earlier. State party leaders grumbled about his spotty campaigning in state for their candidates, and activists complained that he was ideologically out of step with the rest of the party. A national chorus began to grow for his removal among party stalwarts.
But the senator was “electable,” meaning that he had as much (if not more) support among independents and members of the opposite party than his own. The party couldn’t afford to lose his seat, not with so much on the line. So they unhappily settled in for another six years of misery.
But then, a man who seemed like the perfect primary opponent appeared, and everything changed. Party leaders rushed to his side. The grassroots went wild. Money flowed in. And why not? The party faithful could get rid of a constant irritation, and elect someone who knew what they wanted, and would support the party in Washington instead of working against it. Lines were drawn. A bitter primary battle was set, with the possibility of the incumbent running as an independent should he lose his party’s nomination.
The year was 1982, and Prescott Bush Jr., the brother of Vice President George H. W. Bush, had thrown his hat in the ring against the maverick Sen. Lowell Weicker, despised by many in his own party for his role in Watergate and his irritating tendency to publicly defy the party and the Reagan Administration (Madden 1981).
Bush raced out to an early lead following his announcement, and some polls showed him defeating both Weicker, who would presumably run as an independent, and Democrat Toby Moffett in a three-way race (Wessel). Conservative activists cheered him on, and notable Republican strategists signed on to his campaign.
However, Bush lost the convention 65-35, and soon thereafter dropped out of the race, citing the fact that Weicker was the more electable Republican. Later polls showed Bush badly trailing Moffett in a two-way race, while Weicker was about even with him (Madden 1982). Such was the importance of Weicker’s seat to Republicans that they dared not follow their hearts. Weicker went on to defeat Moffett, but the party’s right wing would have its revenge when it supported conservative Democrat Joe Lieberman against Weicker in 1988.
So what does this tell us about our current situation? The parallels are pretty obvious: the party’s ideological base and some state party leaders are lukewarm on the incumbent, but the possibility of losing a crucial seat to the other party and a possible independent run by the incumbent may give them pause.
There are plenty of differences, too. Unlike Mr. Lamont, Mr. Bush had plenty of national political experience (he worked on his brother’s campaign in 1980, had held state and local offices, and was the son of a U.S. Senator), and was already a well-known quantity in Connecticut. Bush also had more of a command of the issues than Mr. Lamont has thus far demonstrated, although he ducked Weicker's requests for a debate.
On the other hand, no Republican of Toby Moffett’s stature has yet stepped forward to challenge Sen. Lieberman, which makes the prospect of a close two-way general election remote. In fact, since 1988, Republicans have tended to put up inexperienced sacrificial lambs instead of more well-known challengers against Lieberman and Dodd. There is no apparent rush to do anything differently this year. Therefore, the “electability” issue may very well pale before the prospect of Lieberman staying in office until at least 2012.
One thing that may work against Sen. Lieberman is the fact that, come January of next year, he will have been in office for eighteen years himself (Dodd has been in for longer, but is much more secure) and it’s looking more and more likely that the only real chance people will have for change is in the Democratic primary. Mr. Lamont may be able to take advantage of a desire for change among Democrats as well as their frustration with Sen. Lieberman.
Unfortunately, Mr. Bush bowed out of the senate race long before the primary, so we have no idea whether he actually would have defeated Sen. Weicker, although polls suggest that the race was close. What Bush’s challenge does prove is that an established senator seen as out of line with the party can actually be challenged with a degree of success.
"The Ear." The Washington Post (1974-Current file) Jan 10 1982: M1.
Madden, R. L. "Liking Weicker Wasn't as Important as Needing Him." New York Times (1857-Current file) Aug 1 1982: E6.
Madden, R.L. "Prescott Bush Senate Bid seen Set." New York Times (1857-Current file) Sep 20 1981: CN22.
Ravo, Nick. “In the Heat of the Summer, Senate Race Hits a Lull.” New York Times July 10 1988.
Wessel, B. "Bush could Win in a 3-Way Race for U.S. Senate." New York Times (1857-Current file) Feb 21 1982: CN14.