A new era begins after Lieberman

At risk of having to scrape some egg off my face in a future column, let's assume that the Senate primary races turn out as predicted on Aug. 14 and 5th District Congressman Chris Murphy faces businesswoman Linda McMahon in the general election. Sound bites and slick commercials aside, what are the implications of one of these two people replacing retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman?

Regardless of who wins, the change will be significant. As a self-described "independent Democrat," Sen. Lieberman, almost alone, has straddled the two parties during a time of extreme Washington partisanship. While a faithful liberal Democrat on such issues as the environment, labor and women's reproductive rights, Lieberman has broken ranks on spending issues, legislating morality and in pursuit of a hawkish foreign policy that lines up with Republican neocons.

This ability to move to one side or the other depending on the issue provided Lieberman a sort of authoritative clout. Pundits wanted to know where Lieberman lined up. Fox commentators would exhibit him as evidence of how Democrats had gone astray and alienated a once loyal Democrat like Lieberman. His failure to stick to a partisan line won praise from those who saw him as an independent thinker, and disdain from many loyal Democrats who saw his behavior as traitorous.

Neither McMahon nor Murphy will fill those shoes. In his three terms in Congress, Murphy has lined up with his party on every major issue. And given her anti-tax, cut spending, pro-business rhetoric, McMahon can be expected to dutifully align with fellow Republicans in the Senate.

Murphy would likely be the more effective senator within the beltway; McMahon the more interesting character on the airwaves. Murphy has been in Washington long enough to know how it works. He would form a natural alliance with fellow Democrat and Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal (while McMahon and Blumenthal, who fought a nasty battle in 2010, would have no relationship).

McMahon, on the other hand, could if elected prove irresistible to the 24-hour news networks and Internet political outlets, at least at the start. Her story would be the atypical path to the stately Senate. Rising from bankruptcy, she built a large fortune with husband Vince McMahon in the bizarre, controversial, steroid powered, soap operatic, violent and tremendously popular world of professional wrestling as packaged by the WWE. Who could resist that 15-minute interview?

The biggest problem McMahon and Republican leaders who hope to use her victory to win control of the Senate is - how does she get there? In the general election she will have trouble peeling off many Democratic votes in this Democrat-dominated state. On the other hand, she has weakness in her own party. Some Connecticut Republicans will not be able to stomach sending the professional wrestling tycoon to Washington, convinced she is not up to the job and undeserving.

"I have never run against an opponent that I have respected less - ever - and there are a lot of candidates I have run against," said her opponent in the Republican primary, former Congressman Chris Shays.

It is a sentiment shared by many supporters of former Congressman Rob Simmons, defeated by McMahon in the GOP Senate primary two years ago. Both men were buried under the avalanche of political ads that McMahon's fortune allowed her to purchase. And both, ironically, are the kind of moderate Republicans who can win a general election in Connecticut.

To overcome this lack of Republican unity, McMahon will have to win a huge percentage of the unaffiliated vote, which brings things back to Lieberman, who combined those voters with moderate Democrats to win in 2006.

Unfortunately for her, she's no Joe Lieberman.

Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.

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