HARTFORD, Conn. — Anti-war challenger Ned Lamont defeated three-term incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman in yesterday’s Democratic primary here after a campaign that turned into a referendum on the Iraq war and President Bush.
Mr. Lieberman, who just six years ago was his party’s vice-presidential nominee, called Mr. Lamont shortly before 11 p.m. to concede. But standing before supporters moments later at the Goodwin Hotel, he conceded nothing as he vowed to file papers this morning with the Connecticut secretary of state to run as an independent.
“We just finished the first half, and the Lamont team is ahead,” he said in possibly the most upbeat concession speech in recent American politics. “But in the second half, our team — Team Connecticut — is going to surge ahead.”
With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Mr. Lamont had 144,005 votes to Mr. Lieberman’s 134,026 — a lead of 52 percent to 48 percent.
At the Lamont victory party, the candidate was flanked by prominent liberals such as the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and lamented the ratio of lobbyists to lawmakers in Washington. But Mr. Lamont sent his supporters into their greatest frenzy when he mentioned his lead issue — ending U.S. involvement in Iraq.
“We have 132,000 heroes stuck” in a civil war in Iraq, he said. “I say it’s high time to bring them home.”
With that the crowd began chanting repeatedly: “Bring them home. Bring them home.”
Mr. Lieberman was not the only incumbent Democrat to lose last night. Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney of Georgia lost the primary runoff in her solidly Democratic district to former DeKalb County Commissioner Hank Johnson.
But all eyes in Connecticut immediately turned to the general election in which Mr. Lieberman promised to run as an independent, against Mr. Lamont and Republican Alan Schlesinger.
Supporters at the Goodwin Hotel last night were elated that Mr. Lieberman would still be on November’s ballot and predicted that he would win easily after picking up all the independents and Republicans who could not vote in yesterday’s primary.
Still, it is expected that starting this morning, Mr. Lieberman will come under intense pressure from national Democrats to get out of the race so the party can rally around it’s nominee.
But Mr. Lieberman made it clear last night that he took personally the campaign — and the attacks of “insults instead of ideas.”
“I am disappointed not just because I lost but because the old politics of partisan polarization won the day,” he said. “For the sake of our state, our country and my party, I cannot and will not let that result stand.”
“I will continue to offer Connecticut a different path forward” he said.
With the defeat, Mr. Lieberman became just the fourth sitting senator to lose a primary election since 1980.
With primaries held across the country yesterday, the Lamont-Lieberman race dominated headlines as reporters converged on the tiny state, often outnumbering voters at restaurants and rallies.
During a stop at the Rajun Cajun restaurant here this week, Mr. Lieberman looked around a room full of reporters, cameras and fuzzy boom microphones and asked: “Are there any real people here?”
Only a few, it turned out.
Six months ago, the race looked as if it would be a lopsided snoozer — with Mr. Lieberman 55 points ahead in polls. By the start of August, Mr. Lamont had demolished that lead and, according to the latest poll conducted by Quinnipiac University, taken a 54 percent to 41 percent lead over Mr. Lieberman.
By the day of the primary, Mr. Lieberman had cut the poll lead in half, and the race had become the hottest in the country, drawing supporters to both camps from outside the state. The interest boosted turnout to near 50 percent of eligible Democrats — a figure rarely seen in party primaries in a nonpresidential election year.
Supporting Mr. Lamont have been the New York Times, anti-war activists, and liberal bloggers and activists such as Mr. Sharpton. Coming to Mr. Lieberman’s support has been former President Bill Clinton and the editorial board of every major Connecticut paper.
Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the founder and head of the popular Daily Kos site, exulted in the defeat of Mr. Lieberman last night and gave a hint of what the party’s liberal base will demand if Mr. Lieberman runs as an independent, or as Mr. Moulitsas put it — tries to “stab his allies and his party in the back.”
“Here’s what we all need to do the next few days,” he said in a post last night. “1. Push Harry Reid to strip Lieberman of all committee assignments; 2. Let people know what a sore loser Lieberman is; 3. Get all Democrats — including Bill Clinton — to publicly back Ned Lamont; 4. Get the Democratic interest groups who backed Lieberman to switch allegiances in the general.”