Accused of spoiling race, Lieberman faces pressure to quit Georgia U.S. Senate bid

He’s being accused of ignoring lessons that cost his father a VP victory
Matt Lieberman, an entrepreneur and son of former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, is facing pressure from fellow Democrats to end his bid for the U.S. Senate in November's special election.  (CONTRIBUTED)

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

Matt Lieberman, an entrepreneur and son of former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, is facing pressure from fellow Democrats to end his bid for the U.S. Senate in November's special election. (CONTRIBUTED)

U.S. Senate candidate Matt Lieberman is under intense pressure to drop out of the race by fellow Democrats using a deeply personal argument: They say he’s poised to spoil the party’s chances at a victory in Georgia, much in the same way a long-shot contender hobbled his father’s bid for vice president.

Worried that Lieberman could siphon votes in a messy special election from Raphael Warnock, the party establishment’s favorite, they’re drawing parallels between his campaign and that of Ralph Nader, a Green Party candidate whom Democrats blamed for costing Al Gore and Joe Lieberman the 2000 election by taking votes from them in Florida.

“Were it not for Ralph Nader, Joe Lieberman could have been the first Jewish vice president and likely the first Jewish president,” said Michael Rosenzweig, a leader of a group of Jewish Democrats in Georgia aiming to push Lieberman out of the race.

Rosenzweig added that while Matt Lieberman is well respected in local circles, “we believe that he doesn’t have a realistic chance of winning this thing."

"He does have a chance of knocking Warnock out of the runoff, though, which will be very troubling,” Rosenzweig said.

Lieberman, a former principal of the Atlanta Jewish Academy, has roundly rejected talk of quitting the race, saying he has as much shot as Warnock to defeat Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler. But a series of polls out this week suggest that’s not the case.

Each poll shows Lieberman hovering around 10% of the vote while Warnock, pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, has roughly double his support and is running neck-and-neck with Loeffler and Republican US. Rep. Doug Collins in the special election.

Those very same polls have become part of Lieberman’s reasoning for staying in the race.

“Either I’m in a statistical dead heat with Warnock or I’m sufficiently far behind not to be a threat,” Lieberman said in an interview. “Those are the two possibilities going forward. And if I end up at 10%, I pose no threat whatsoever to Warnock advancing. If I’m at 20%, I’m every bit as strong as he is.”

Despite Warnock’s rise, Democrats are increasingly expressing concerns that Lieberman’s presence in the contest will take just enough votes away from Warnock to allow the two Republicans to squeeze ahead, depriving the party of a shot in a January runoff between the top two finishers.

New polls show Democrat Raphael Warnock running neck-and-neck with Republicans Kelly Loeffler and Doug Collins in Georgia's special election for the U.S. Senate. That has increased pressure on another Democrat, Matt Lieberman, to bow out of the race to boost Warnock's numbers in a contest likely headed to a runoff in January.  (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Stacey Abrams, a Warnock advocate, said Thursday that she was “deeply disturbed” about a Lieberman novel that critics say was shaped by racist tropes, and she called for him to “search his conscience” and clear the way for Warnock.

“We need Matt Lieberman to understand he’s not called for this moment,” Abrams said.

Other party leaders also worry Lieberman erases even the glimmer of a hope that Warnock could win the race outright and avoid a high-pressure runoff in January.

“He’s going to be the top vote-getter. The question is, can he get to a majority vote,” said Jason Carter, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2014. “If there’s a chance that he can get to 50% plus one, then everyone should be pulling toward him. The stakes are so high and he takes office before January if he wins.”

‘The good of the party’

Recent polls indicate Warnock is trending up. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll this week showed the pastor at 20% and Lieberman trailing at 11%. A New York Times survey released Thursday had Lieberman further behind, with 7%. About 1 in 6 voters are still undecided, indicating Warnock’s numbers could grow.

Warnock is also far outpacing Lieberman in fundraising and has the support of every prominent state and national figure who has taken a side. With his hefty financial advantage, he’s blanketing the airwaves with ads and intensely targeting Black voters who form the backbone of the state party.

Even if Lieberman drops out, it’s too late to remove his name from ballots that are now being sent to more than 1 million Georgians who requested to vote absentee by mail.

Still, the level of angst about Lieberman underscores the aggressive Democratic push in Georgia, where President Donald Trump and Joe Biden are deadlocked in polls. And those calls have spread to national Democratic figures with the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy left by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death focusing attention on the GOP’s 53-47 edge in the Senate.

Georgia U.S. Senate candidate Matt Lieberman's father, former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, pictured, was the Democratic candidate for vice president in 2000 when a long-shot candidate, Ralph Nader, may have swung the election to Republicans.

Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

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Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

“For the good of the party, Lieberman needs to drop out,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former adviser to President Barack Obama who hosts the “Pod Save America” podcast. “Control of the Senate could come down to the Georgia runoff.”

Added Neera Tanden, a law school classmate of Lieberman’s who heads the left-leaning Center for American Progress: “He’s simply making sure the GOP controls the runoff at this point.”

Loeffler and Collins have been locked in a bitter feud since even before the four-term congressman entered the race this year, and each has embraced far-right positions that Democrats believe will haunt either candidate in a January head-to-head matchup against Warnock.

That’s also spared Warnock from more cutting attacks focused on controversial remarks he’s made in the past. Conservative pundits have seized on some of his words, but the GOP candidates have largely focused on each other rather than Warnock.

Should Lieberman drop out, Warnock would still compete with 19 other candidates, including Ed Tarver, a former Democratic state senator. Tarver is not facing the same intensity of calls to drop out, with polls showing him in the low single digits.

“We live in a democracy,” said Tarver, a military veteran and former U.S. attorney. “Voters should have the opportunity to select the candidate who is most qualified and prepared to represent them in Washington. I have a proven record of public service.”

As for Lieberman, he’s not fazed by the comparison to Nader, who has long rejected criticism that he was a spoiler in 2000. The Democrat said he’s never been able to “muster any particular animosity” against the former Green Party candidate.

“That’s the truth. I understand the math, but this is a democracy and he had every right to run. He represented a point of view in this country," Lieberman said. "The answer to this country’s problems can’t be to intimidate or threaten people from exercising their right to run. That’s not a healthy democracy.”