Sunday, August 20, 2006

Borrowing from David Price's playbook

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on August 12th, 2006

Joe Lieberman did a lot of things wrong leading to his defeat in the Democratic primary for the Senate in Connecticut on Tuesday. He did not launch a meaningful get-out-the-vote effort. He left $2 million in the bank -- money that if spent probably would have put him over the top. And of course, he made the tactical error of announcing a month before the election that he would run as an independent if he lost the primary, a move that alienated primary voters and probably was the biggest reason for his defeat.

But another error he made is a little more subtle and a little more local. He should have picked up the phone and called our congressman, David Price, for a little advice on how to deal with a challenge from the left.

Price, too, faced an energetic and articulate challenge in his May primary. He fended it off easily, winning more than 85 percent of the vote. There's an obvious big difference between Lieberman conqueror Ned Lamont and Kent Kanoy, who came up way short against Price: money. Lamont raised a lot of it, while Kanoy refused to take donations. But there are also a lot less obvious but meaningful things Price does that would have made it impossible for even a well-funded challenger to get much traction against him.

For one thing, Price maintains a high level of visibility locally, doing things that ingratiate him to the Democratic base. While Joe Lieberman at times in the last month seemed to be running his campaign on "Meet the Press" instead of on the ground in Connecticut, Price was headlining fundraisers for numerous local candidates for office. Just in the past few weeks he helped House challengers Ed Ridpath and Greer Beaty, both of whom reside in the western Wake County portion of Price's 4th Congressional District.

Folks almost invariably feel a closer connection to more local candidates for office like the state legislature. When Price takes the time to help them out, he earns the gratitude of all their supporters as well as the candidates themselves. Because he continues to show a deep interest in what's going on in every corner of his district even after 20 years in Washington, he has deservedly built up a reservoir of goodwill that makes him virtually unbeatable.

Price also handles criticism and tough questions a lot better than Lieberman did. Although he has been chided for not agreeing to a series of debates during his recent primary challenge, he has not hesitated to speak to large groups of people not entirely happy with his actions. For instance, he appeared at a well-attended forum sponsored by the Orange County Democratic Party last October about the war. Audience members were given color-coded cards they could hold up to express their positive or negative feelings about what Price said. A lot of folks expressed unhappiness about some of his remarks, but he remained articulate, patient and respectful.

Lieberman, on the other hand, seemed to develop an intense dislike of Democrats who challenged his views over the course of the primary season. He came across as not open to other people's perspectives, and, instead of reaching out to disaffected liberals, essentially declared war on them by announcing his plans to seek the seat as an Independent. It was tantamount to saying that he didn't need their support anyway.

It's safe to say that a lot of people who do not agree with Price on every issue voted for him nonetheless. A majority of Connecticut Democrats turned against Lieberman. It has a lot to do with temperament.

Of course, beyond the differences in their personalities, Price's voting record better represents the views of his constituents than Lieberman. Even if some folks feel he has been overly cautious about plans for withdrawal, he did vote against the war. He also has a long record of progressive accomplishments on issues like college affordability, war crimes prosecution and forcing candidates to take greater accountability for their negative campaigning.

Lieberman had some good achievements, but he let his dour demeanor and his close relationship with President Bush overshadow them. Price has almost universally stayed true to his liberal-leaning ideology and never minces his words about his dislike of the direction in which the president has taken our country. Folks know that when they hear Price speak, they are likely to hear a stinging indictment of the Republican administration, something that compares favorably to Lieberman's preaching about the need for all citizens to unite behind the president in a time of war.

I voted enthusiastically for David Price in May, and if I lived in Connecticut I would have voted for Ned Lamont on Tuesday. If Lieberman had wanted to remain in good graces with his Democratic base, he should have taken a few ideas from the Price playbook, as should any incumbent facing a similar challenge in the future. Price is a model for appealing to constituents who don't agree with him on everything.

Tom Jensen is a local political activist and a recent graduate of UNC. Readers can contact him at or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516.

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