The Democrats’ Connecticut Conundrum Retires

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“The reason I have decided not to run for re-election in 2012 is best expressed in the wise words from Ecclesiastes,” Joe Lieberman told the gathered crowd Wednesday afternoon in a hotel ballroom in Stamford, Connecticut. “‘To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under Heaven.'” For many Democrats, Lieberman’s retirement announcement is more like something out of the Gospel of Luke; the wayward son returns home.

No member of the Democratic caucus has inspired more dyspepsia and distrust in his colleagues in recent years than Senator Joseph I. Lieberman. Once the vice presidential candidate that helped bring Al Gore within a few hundred votes of the White House, the Connecticut Senator moved to the margins of his party in the Bush era and eventually beyond. Carrying the slight of his 2006 primary defeat at the hands of anti-war millionaire Ned Lamont close at heart, Lieberman bucked his party on the Iraq war and eventually endorsed John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008. His shifting requirements on health reform — especially on the Public Option and, once that was ruled out, an expansion of Medicare — threw liberals into conniptions during their darkest hours of the 111th Congress. But his lame duck effort to push repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” over the final hurdle brought him plaudits from the left and his relationship with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham may offer Democrats their only hope of legislative gains on immigration or energy in next two years.

Lieberman’s announcement that he will not seek re-election in 2012 is in its own way another step back into the fold. Though his aides insist he never doubted that he could remain in office, his path to reelection would have been tenuous, if not impassable. With approval ratings in the low 30s and no home in either major party, many political handicappers considered his goose well-cooked. But electoral realities are often lost on outsized egos, especially those who have spent decades in the heady altitudes of the Senate, and Lieberman did not have to go quietly. By making a graceful exit early on in the cycle, he has cleared the air for Dems concerned about splitting votes with the Independent in typically Blue territory.

Patty Murray, chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was something less than glowing in her statement on Lieberman’s decision, merely noting that he “has been an independent voice for the people of Connecticut and has served in the Senate with distinction.” But she was adamant that the seat would remain in Democratic hands. Her chances are pretty good and experienced candidates have already begun to emerge. Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz, who has held one state office or another since 1992, is the only one yet to officially announce. But two three-term congressman, Chris Murphy and Joe Courtney, have both expressed interest in making a run.

The Republican candidates most likely to step into the breach are competitive 2010 also-rans. Former ambassador Tom Foley, who narrowly lost the governorship last year to Dan Malloy told the Courant he hasn’t ruled out a bid. Former congressman Rob Simmons fell far short in the 2010 Republican Senate primary, but is said to be weighing another run. And the GOP wild card remains Linda McMahon, the free spending former wrestling mogul whom now-Senator Dick Blumenthal torched by 12 points in November. Her path wouldn’t be easier in 2012 — turnout will likely increase in a presidential year and Obama beat McCain by more than 300,000 votes there in 2008 — but McMahon has money to burn and still harbors political ambitions; she flooded the airwaves with “thank you” ads to voters in wake of her defeat.

Whomever each party fields, Lieberman’s retirement makes Democrats’ lives simpler in Connecticut and D.C. For better or worse, that’s not something he’s done often in his time in the Senate.