Bush Isn't Supporting Lieberman's GOP Opponent

If Sen. Joe Lieberman votes next year to organize the Senate under a Democratic majority leader, or is the deciding vote in defeating a conservative Supreme Court nominee, or in filibustering a conservative appellate court nominee, President Bush may have only himself to blame.

As of now, the White House is not endorsing Alan Schlesinger, the Republican candidate running against Lieberman and Democratic candidate Ned Lamont in Connecticut’s three-way senatorial race. The implication is that the President wants Lieberman—a hard-core liberal who had an American Conservative Union rating of 0% in 2004—to defeat the Republican and be re-elected to the Senate.

Both White House Spokesman Tony Snow and Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman have declined opportunities to endorse former Derby, Conn., Mayor Schlesinger.

At the regular White House briefing on August 16, Snow said, “We are not making any endorsement in Connecticut. The Republican Party of Connecticut has suggested that we not make an endorsement in that race, and so we’re certainly not going to be endorsing between Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont because both of them are going to caucus as Democrats if they’re elected to the United States Senate.”

Pressed as to whether he found it “a little odd” that a Republican Administration had been asked by the Connecticut Republican Party not to support its Senate nominee, the President’s top spokesman replied: “No, actually there have been races in the past where candidates didn’t meet the expectations of the local parties and Presidents have stayed out, Democrats and Republicans, in the past.”

In a response to a follow-up question requesting a list of such races, Snow said, “We’ll do an asterisk for you.”—a reference to additional information that is sometimes added at the end of the transcript of a daily briefing. When that transcript for that briefing was released, however, there was no “asterisk” containing the list.

Snow’s statement came days after Republican National Chairman Mehlman, was asked by Chris Matthews on MSNBC’s “Hardball” if he was going to endorse the Republican nominee for the Senate in Connecticut. Mehlman ducked the question, repeatedly saying it was up to people in Connecticut to “decide” who to support.

“Ken, who are you rooting for in Connecticut this November?” Mathews asked. “Your guy, Alan Schlesinger we talked to last night on the program, or this sort of disaffected, rejected Democrat Joe Lieberman?”

“Connecticut Republicans and Democrats and independents are going to decide this and I’m leaving it to folks there to make the decision,” Mehlman said. “I talked to the state chairman up there and they’re going forward and it’s up to folks up there to decide.”

“Say something good about Alan Schlesinger,” Matthews said.

“I’ve met him. He’s a good man. I think he has a good vision for the future of the country,” said Mehlman. “He understands the importance of reducing taxes and staying strong on the war on terror.”

“Is he clean?” said Matthews.

“He is,” said Mehlman. “He’s somebody I’ve gotten the opportunity to meet and deal with and respect a lot and as I said, it’s going to be up to the people in Connecticut to make that decision.”

Later, Matthews said: “Why do you believe a Republican should vote for Joe Lieberman or the candidate of your party? You have an opportunity to endorse. Who are you endorsing?”

“I endorse Chris Matthews,” said Mehlman. “I think it’s up to the Republicans individually to make that decision.”

Matthews tried again: “[D]o you want Republicans in Connecticut to vote for the Republican candidate or do you want them to vote for Joe Lieberman? Which one?”

“I’m letting Republicans in Connecticut make that decision, that’s the right way I think it should go.”

Matthews finally concluded: “I think you’re hesitating to endorse your own candidate.” Mehlman did not deny it.

In the past, President Bush almost always has endorsed GOP incumbents while only rarely intervening in Republican primaries. In 2002, the White House did keep out of the New Hampshire Republican Senate primary campaign that featured two conservatives, incumbent Sen. Bob Smith and Rep. John Sununu. Yet, in 2004, Bush helped moderate-to-liberal Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.) overcome a stiff primary challenge from conservative Rep. Pat Toomey. More recently, the White House made clear it preferred a U.S. Senate nominee in Florida other than Rep. Katherine Harris (R.-Fla.).

It would be difficult to find a case, however, where the White House signaled it favored a Democratic or independent candidate over a Republican—until now. The closest example was in 2002, when the President discouraged a GOP challenge to conservative Democratic Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas. But Hall had endorsed Bush as a Democrat and later switched parties.

That the administration would refuse to endorse a Republican nominee against arch-liberal Ned Lamont and Lieberman—who has opposed the President on just about every issue except the Iraq War—is unprecedented.

When I spoke to Connecticut Republican Chairman George Gallo about Snow’s remarks, he told me he had had “ongoing conversations with Ken Mehlman and [RNC Political Director] Mike Duhaime. I told them our priorities in Connecticut were to re-elect Gov. [Jodi] Rell, retain our three Republican House members, and increase our numbers in the state senate and house.”

As for Schlesinger’s Senate race, Gallo said, “Alan’s not my top priority.”

Referring to polls showing Schlesinger running third behind Lieberman and Lamont, Gallo said, “It’s up to the Schlesinger campaign to solidify the Republican base here. So far, they haven’t done that.”

Were Schlesinger to show some movement in the polls and solidify the GOP base, would he then recommend White House and national GOP involvement on his behalf? “Absolutely,” replied Gallo.

For the meanwhile, Schlesinger cannot count on the support of a President of his own party or his own party’s national committee. They are pulling for a liberal Democrat to win.