Ned Lamont is at it again.
The last we heard from the Connecticut cable-television tycoon, he was chasing Sen. Joe Lieberman out of the Democratic Party, besting the incumbent in the party’s 2006 primary in a move that ultimately cost the Democrats a seat when Lieberman became an independent and won that fall. On Monday, Lamont returned to his meddlesome ways, traveling to Philadelphia to endorse Rep. Joe Sestak, who is aiming to pull a Lamont by knocking off Sen. Arlen Specter in next May’s primary. The only difference? Sestak might actually win the seat. Although the Navy veteran has managed to raise only half as much cash as Specter, who enjoys the full weight of the White House behind him, he’s pulled within a few points of Specter and is even with the Republican candidate in the polls.
Lamont can offer Sestak lessons in how to best play David to Specter’s Goliath—and how to use the Internet to do it.
A few hours after an afternoon endorsement ceremony with Philadelphia’s Independence Hall serving as a backdrop, Lamont told The Daily Beast that he sees Sestak’s campaign against Specter as very much like his own challenge of Lieberman. Lamont attacked the 2000 vice-presidential nominee for his support of the Iraq War and lack of support for progressive causes. Sestak’s run, which goes against the wishes of President Barack Obama and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, is fueled by a similar angst—a fear that Specter, who was a Republican for 44 years and switched parties this spring, can’t be trusted to hew the party line.
“Sestak shares Democratic principles. That comes not from political calculation, it comes from the heart,” Lamont said at the press conference.
“We had a great time,” Lamont said in an interview. “I endorsed Joe Sestak in front of Independence Hall, saluting his courage.”
Although a military man for 31 years, Sestak seems to relish bucking the chain of command. He was happy to have Lamont along to aid in the insurrection. When asked about running against the White House and the party establishment, Sestak likes to cite the Whiskey Rebellion as an example of his state’s attitude toward authority. He brought up the 1794 uprising again yesterday.
Lamont laughed. “You didn’t want to pay a little tax on whiskey?” he asked.
“We wanted something to celebrate with,” Sestak said.
Their celebratory moment was nearly drowned out by the sound of Air Force Two landing in the state the same day. Vice President Joe Biden was in Pennsylvania to stump for Specter. A visit from the president last month netted Specter $2.5 million. Biden told an audience Monday that without Specter’s vote for the stimulus bill, “we would probably be in the depression.” Specter returned the love, saying Biden was “the most influential and powerful vice president in our history.” Still, despite the added pomp and purse of the White House, Specter’s lead in the polls has shrunk from 19 points in June to 13 in early August to four points last week.
Facing the onslaught launched by Obama and Co., Sestak, a Navy admiral, saw his fundraising decline last quarter, dropping from $1 million to $758,000. That’s where Lamont comes in. When he ran for the Senate in 2006, Lamont was a darling of Internet activists, who reveled in the possibility of taking down Lieberman. The same group, with an assist from Lamont, could be taken with Sestak as well. At the August gathering of Netroots Nation in Pittsburgh, where Sestak and Specter squared off in a debate, Sestak outpolled his opponent nearly five to one. At ActBlue, the online Democratic fundraising organization, Sestak has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in each of the last three election cycles. Specter has raised $797 on the site this cycle. Lamont can offer Sestak lessons in how to best play David to Specter’s Goliath—and how to use the Internet to do it.
Adrian Arroyo, deputy communications director at ActBlue, said Lamont was a leader in a class of candidates in 2006, “when the netroots really broke into politics. Lamont getting Sestak’s back running against Arlen Specter—I hope that is a broader trend we will see going forward. The larger story is of young Democrats who have been empowered by this new online fundraising mechanism getting each others’ backs.”
Howie Klein of Blue America PAC, which has raised nearly $3 million for progressive candidates since 2006, said that Lamont was his group’s “first big success story.” While he said the online liberal community respects the Connecticut Democrat, he said Lamont’s association with Sestak wouldn’t guarantee that progressive support would immediately follow.
“The netroots community is pretty sophisticated and does not just go along with an endorsement,” Klein said.
His group has yet to endorse any candidates for the 2010 campaign but said that Sestak’s stance on Afghanistan—he is in favor of troop escalation—may prevent Blue America from signing on. But they won’t be backing his opponent, either.
“We are certainly not going to be endorsing Arlen Specter. That’s not going to happen,” Klein said.
For his part, Specter sought to turn Lamont’s visit to his own advantage. “Lamont was a lifelong Democrat. Sestak has only been a Democrat since 2006,” Specter campaign manager Chris Nicholas said, referring to the year that Sestak registered in the party.
“Sen. Specter was proud to be with Vice President Biden and a hundred rank-and-file Democrats at a fundraiser in Pittsburgh. Those are the voters we are concerned about,” Nicholas said.
For Specter, there’s an unappreciated irony in Sestak’s insurgency. The Pennsylvania senator fled from the Republican Party as he was being outflanked on the right by Rep. Pat Toomey. Now Sestak is having success running from the left with the same charge of ideological impurity. Throughout the campaign, Sestak and Toomey have found common cause, presenting themselves as the candidates of principle against the wishy-washy Specter.
“I disagree violently with many of the ideas that Pat Toomey espouses,” Sestak said. “However, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t take stands and principles he believes in.”
“In the end of the day, we’re stuck in Pennsylvania with whoever wins the primary,” Sestak said. “I think [Obama] does want a true Democrat in his heart of hearts. I also believe he has had to help control Arlen Specter. He provides the carrots. I provide the sticks.”
Lamont will do what he can to help—and hope that Sestak might succeed where he could not. “The difference is that the day that Joe wins the primary, Obama, [Gov. Ed] Rendell, Biden will have a sigh of relief and enthusiastically endorse his candidacy. He runs ahead of Toomey today. It wasn’t quite the same for me.”
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.