The Unmaking of a Senator: How Bloggers Pulled It Off

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MONIKA GRAFF / UPI / LANDOV

Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman addresses supporters at his election headquarters after losing the Connecticut primary to Ned Lamont. Afterwards, Lieberman said he would run as an independent.

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Now that it has played a major role in helping to defeat Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut Senate primary Tuesday, the Netroots' moment has finally arrived.

The much-hyped Internet activists of the Howard Dean presidential campaign, liberal blogs like Daily Kos and activist groups like MoveOn.org had generated lots of buzz, but few results at the ballot box until now. But in Tuesday's Democratic primary, the bloggers didnít just get a win, but a victory no one could have expected even four months ago. Joe Lieberman wasn't just a three-term Connecticut Senator, he was only a few thousand votes from being the vice-president in a Democratic administration six years ago. And despite almost the entire Democratic establishment supporting his run against a virtually unknown businessman named Ned Lamont, including former President Clinton campaigning for him in Connecticut, the bloggers and Connecticut voters have essentially kicked Joe Lieberman out of the Democratic Party.

Even Lamont admitted that while he decided to enter the race himself, the blogs had long been hoping someone in Connecticut would take on Lieberman, and their support was crucial early in getting the word of his candidacy out. Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos appeared in one of his early ads, former blogger and Internet organizer Tim Tagaris left his job at the Democratic National Committee to work on Lamontís campaign, and bloggers from the site mydd.com headed up to Connecticut over the last several days to call voters and encourage them to support Lamont. And MoveOn.org strongly supported Lamont despite pleas from Democratic leaders not to.

Still, as the bloggers themselves admit, Lamont's victory was about far more than them. Lieberman's fervent support for the Iraq War, and his attacks on many of his party who opposed President Bush's policy there, annoyed Connecticut voters as much as bloggers. Also, aside from the war, Lieberman suffered from a feeling among many voters there that he was taking the state for granted, and liberals in the blue state were frustrated by his positions on other issues, such as his support for school vouchers. The bloggers and their supporters pumped a few thousand dollars into the race, but having a millionaire candidate like Lamont pour $4 million of his own money was crucial. Lamont's campaign manager, Tow Swan, is a veteran Connecticut political operative who helped run the strong turnout operation that helped propel Lamont to victory.

And the victory for the Netroots may not be complete. Lieberman has said that he will run as an independent, and he'll have some momentum going into that race: polls last week showed Lamont up by as much as 12 and Lieberman closed that gap to only four points. Lieberman officials already created a new rationale for seeking another run at the Senate by accusing Lamont supporters of crashing Liebermanís website on Election Day. While a blue state, Connecticut has more independent than Democrat voters, so Lieberman's support among moderates in both parties could help him keep the seat. But it will be difficult for him, particularly with much of the Democratic establishment who backed him saying they will support Lamont now that he has won the primary.

Either way, this primary win means the Netroots now must be treated by Democratic leaders and politicians like the partyís other major power centers — pro-abortion rights groups, African-Americans and unions. There were signs before this race that the bloggers were already gaining respect. A bunch of presidential candidates showed up to the Daily Kos convention in June. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and other top party officials have met with MoveOn.org staffers to discuss strategy. And in recent weeks, Hillary Clinton has hired a blog outreach adviser and called for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's resignation, two moves that could help her win the favor of the liberal activists if she decides to run for the Democratic presidential nomination next year. Now that the Netroots' power has been cemented, any Democratic presidential candidate will have to consider how to woo these Internet activists — or at least keep them from hating him or her.

But while it may empower the bloggers, Republicans are predicting Lieberman's defeat will actually help them keep control of Congress this November — and many Democrats have the same worry. Lamont's victory will no doubt give Republicans ammunition to caricature the Democratic Party as too liberal.

Mary Matalin, an outside adviser to the White House, signaled the message when she said on Fox News Channel shortly after the polls closed: "MoveOn is not fringe. They're the heart of the party." One House Democratic official said party members had been "urgently trying to send the message to Connecticut voters that a Lieberman loss jeopardizes our ability to take back the House." Some Democratic officials said they can already imagine the ads in November races saying that Lieberman, once within a few hundred votes of being Vice President of the United States, is now "not liberal enough" for the Democratic Party.

On the other hand, Lamont's campaign strategy wasn't particularly different from the one Democrats are using all over the country against Republicans in every other race: he attacked Lieberman for his embrace of Bushís Iraq policy and more generally of being too supportive of Bush. Lamont's victory also suggests thereís an anti-incumbent mood in Connecticut, which could spell trouble for the three House Republicans there.

But for now, this race sends one clear overriding message: in a liberal state like Connecticut, Democratic candidates defy the Netroots, who are here to stay, at their own peril.

With reporting by Mike Allen/Washington