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Facing Difficult Reelection Campaign, Lieberman to Retire Instead Facing Difficult Reelection Campaign, Lieberman to Retire Instead

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Politics / Politics

Facing Difficult Reelection Campaign, Lieberman to Retire Instead

Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., followed a sometimes lonely political path that made him enemies in both parties.(Chet Susslin)

photo of Alex  Roarty
January 18, 2011

Sen. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., will not run for reelection in 2012, sources have confirmed to the National Journal, a move that will likely bring an end to an often-controversial 24 years in office.

The 68-year-old lawmaker, now in his fourth term, will formally announce his decision Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. in Stamford, Conn.

The senator’s retirement is likely an acknowledgment that his quixotic political journey—which earned him the admiration and the scorn of both political parties—has finally left him without a base and, consequently, facing long odds against a potentially strong bipartisan field.


“It’d be the heaviest lift he’s ever done—including his vice presidential run,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of The Cook Political Report.

One of Lieberman's favorite songs, according to a longtime associate who didn't want to be quoted before the senator's retirement was official, is Frank Sinatra's "My Way." It could have been his personal anthem.

He was a loud voice of support for former President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism and his invasion of Iraq.  But he tried to woo Republicans to support Democratic legislation on issues like climate change and immigration reform.

The first senator from outside the South to endorse Bill Clinton's presidential campaign, Lieberman was also one of the first Democrats to chastise Clinton publicly for his infidelity with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. One of the early backers of the Democratic Leadership Council, which urged the party to change its leftist image, Lieberman was also a fierce advocate for minorities—beginning with his work as a college student for black voting rights in the South and ending with the capstone of his Senate career: the passage of legislation that will allow gays to serve openly in the military.

Lieberman irked Democrats (including Barack Obama, who confronted him on the Senate floor) by working in 2008 for the presidential campaign of his good friend Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. But he did not hesitate to oppose McCain when it came to advocating for gay rights in the military. "I was right and he was wrong," Lieberman said after the legislation repealing the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy was passed last year.

After the 2008 campaign, liberals demanded that Lieberman be sanctioned for not backing Obama, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., protected him, and let him keep his position as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Ultimately, however, the senator's independent streak cost him politically. In 2006, just two years after serving as the Democratic Party's vice presidential nominee—the first Jew nominated to a major party's presidential ticket—he was defeated in a Democratic primary by businessman Ned Lamont, who rode a wave of anti-war sentiment to victory. Lieberman recovered to win easily in the general election as an independent, thanks in part to an inept Republican nominee.

But the senator’s difficult relationship with the left hadn’t helped endear him to the right, either.  Since 2008, Republican voters, aided by the tea party movement, have shown little tolerance for candidates who deviate from the party line, and Lieberman still sided with Democrats on an array of key issues.

Lieberman's chances of pulling off an encore performance of his 2006 triumph seemed slim: The senator's strained ties with both parties made it highly unlikely that either would make him their nominee. To win again as an independent, Lieberman would need to capture a majority of GOP votes (exit polls showed him getting 70 percent in his last race), a difficult feat in a year when several credible candidates, including former World Wrestling Federation executive Linda McMahon and businessman Tom Foley—both of whom ran statewide in 2010—appear poised to run.

And Democrats are likely to be formidable. Stan Greenberg, a veteran Democratic pollster based in Connecticut, notes that it is "one of the few states where Democrats had a pretty good year in 2010—they won the governor’s race," He figured that Lieberman's potential Democratic opponents "were probably polling well over 40 percent.” 

Democrats have been lining up to oppose Lieberman: Former Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz declared her candidacy today, while Democratic Reps. Chris Murphy and Joe Courtney are also eyeing a run.

"My interest in running for Senate in 2012 is well known in the state, and I expect to announce my decision very soon," Murphy said in a statement tonight. "All I can say now is that this is going to be a pretty busy few weeks."


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