HARTFORD, Nov. 8 (JTA) — If at first you don’t succeed, his campaign motto could have been, try, try again. Ousted by his party in a stunning primary defeat in August, Sen. Joseph Lieberman ran as an independent Tuesday and defeated Democratic challenger Ned Lamont in one of the nation’s most closely watched U.S. Senate races, bucking a rising tide of dissatisfaction with the Bush administration over the war in Iraq. Lieberman, who supported the war, won by a comfortable 11-point margin. The third candidate, Republican Alan Schlesinger, failed to attract much support. The Jewish vote, which was widely believed to hinge on whether support for Israel was a voter’s principle issue, went to Lieberman, as had significant financial support from pro-Israel factors across the country. A CNN exit poll of 114 Jewish voters found that 63 percent supported Lieberman on Tuesday, a slight increase from the 61 percent that voted for him in the primary. It was below the overwhelming Jewish support Lieberman enjoyed in past elections — yet it was enough for Lieberman to overcome the primary debacle and retain his Senate seat. “Dear friends, this year’s campaign, to say the obvious, was a long journey on which you, my dear supporters, and I were tested like never before,” Lieberman said at his election night celebration in Hartford. “But we never wavered in our beliefs or in our purpose. And we never gave up, did we? For that I am full of gratitude.” With his wife Hadassah at his side, Lieberman thanked God, “from whom all blessings follow,” and called for a bipartisan strategy to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq as victors. Some Jews from around the country came to Connecticut in the days before the election to volunteer for Lieberman’s campaign, in particular to stand at polling stations to help voters locate Lieberman’s name on the bottom line of the ballot. “I think the moral, emotional and financial support he had from the Jewish community helped him come through this election,” said David Greenfield, executive director of the Sephardic Community Federation, a public policy group in Brooklyn, who attended the victory celebration in Hartford. Greenfield said Jewish support for Lieberman was “astronomically higher” nationally than it was in Connecticut, where Lieberman failed to carry several predominantly Jewish districts in the primary. He recaptured several key Jewish districts in Tuesday’s election, such as West Hartford. “I think as far as the American Jewish community is concerned, he is a hero,” he said. Lieberman also benefitted from the largesse of Israel supporters nationwide. He was expected to earn as much as $2 million from pro-Israel donors, about one-tenth of his total projected war chest. Lieberman’s Jewish supporters cited a range of reasons for their loyalty despite traditional Jewish affinity for the Democratic Party, including Lieberman’s support for Israel, their pride in the success of a fellow Jew and Lieberman’s reputed integrity. “I’m a liberal Jew,” said Harry Feder of Riverdale, N.Y., who spent three days in Connecticut before the election working for Lieberman. “We recognize that Joe has been the leader among the Senate when it comes to Israel, when it comes to Jewish issues. He is the lightning rod that other senators look to test out support for Israel.” Yet Lieberman’s support for the war in Iraq nearly cost him his Senate seat, and did cost him his party’s support. Upset by Lamont in August, Lieberman decided to stay in the race rather than bowing out, hoping that his message would appeal to enough Connecticut voters in the general election. Emphasizing his reputation as a centrist willing to buck the party line, a theme that has been a hallmark of his campaign, Lieberman told his supporters Tuesday night, “I promise you I will go to Washington beholden to no political group, but only to the people of Connecticut and to my conscience.” In electing him to a fourth term, Connecticut voters “chose progress over partisanship, problem solving over polarization and the mainstream over the extreme,” he said. Voter turnout was reportedly high in an election that drew national attention, both for the spectacle of a three-term incumbent and former vice presidential nominee struggling for re-election against a political novice, and as a battleground in the wider war over Iraq. “Lieberman was able to vindicate a political science theory by demonstrating that the centrist — the person who is closest to the ideological center of the electorate — can prevail,” said Donald Green, a professor of political science at Yale University. “The country remains ideologically divided, and a candidate like Lieberman, who is a rare figure in the center of the ideological spectrum, is able to prevail when an entire electorate is participating and not shackled by party ties.” Lieberman’s decision to stay in the race after the primary loss posed a dilemma for Democrats in a year when many hoped public disaffection with the Bush administration would return them to power in one or both houses of Congress. Though some offered tepid support for Lamont, or stayed out of the race altogether, others actively campaigned on his behalf, including Lieberman’s longtime Senate colleague, Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.). Lieberman said he was “disappointed” with Dodd because of their friendship, but as the election drew closer and Lieberman’s victory looked increasingly certain, both sides expressed confidence their differences could be overcome. “We’re all grown-ups. We’re professionals,” Lieberman told reporters in New Haven on Tuesday morning. “We’ve got to work together.” Lieberman repeatedly has promised that he would support Senate Democrats if re-elected, and observers expect the party will welcome him. “I don’t think there’s going to be a millisecond of hesitation on the part of other Democrats,” said Howard Reiter, a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut. “They’re going to want every vote they can get.” Looking lighthearted and relaxed, Lieberman campaigned across the state Tuesday with his wife, son and several grandchildren at his side. At a firehouse in New Haven, Lieberman was surrounded by 20 or so firefighters wearing yellow “Firefighters for Lieberman” T-shirts. Flanked by family and supporters, he then walked over to the Hall of Records to cast his vote before a scrum of local and national media. “I got into public service not to play partisan political games,” Lieberman told reporters after the vote. “I got into it to get something done.” Lieberman promised that his “singular focus” would be to “break partisan political gridlock.” He also was joined on the campaign trail by actor Ron Silver, who called Lieberman a friend and said he had come up from New York because the race had serious implications for the future of the Democratic Party. “I think it’s terribly important for the party that there’s a place for Joe Lieberman in the party,” Silver told JTA. “I want it to be a moderate centrist” party “that puts principles above polls, above popularity.”
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Ben Harris is JTA's former associate editor.