Joe Lieberman got his start in politics in 1982 by being elected attorney general of Connecticut, a state where politics has for generations been dominated by old-line Protestant Yankees doing battle with Catholic descendants of 19th-century immigrants. So how did a Jewish candidate prevail in that mix?
Let's look first at how another Jewish politician, Daniel Glickman, ran and won in another nearly all-Christian state, Kansas.The Kansas electorate, according to the Almanac of American Politics, "has always been dominated by white Anglo Saxon Protestants." Traditionalist to boot--it's the state that produced Alf Landon, the anti-New Deal Republican presidential candidate of 1936, and most recently produced Bob Dole, the anti-Clinton candidate of 1996. Yet a quarter century ago, Dan Glickman won one of the state's seats in Congress, and not from the university-town district of Lawrence, either--he hails from Wichita, which is about as white-bread as cities get.
Glickman, a local trial attorney, ran as a conservative Democrat. He was against big government, riling his party by opposing many of President Jimmy Carter's programs. Glickman was also a stickler for government ethics, advocating the hard line in cases involving government waste or fraud. Over the years, he voted with conservatives as often as with liberals--for instance, Glickman favored the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction act, detested by most Democrats and one of the big ideological crunch bills of the 1980s.
That is to say, Glickman neutralized objections to his faith by playing against Jewish type. He wasn't the free-spending liberal voters might have expected from a Jewish candidate: Rather, hailing from a conservative state with conservative values, he presented himself to voters as slightly right of center. And that was fine with the citizens of Wichita, who might have had doubts about a liberal Jew, but were happy to cast their ballots for a relatively conservative one. Glickman held his seat from 1976 to 1994. Today he is Bill Clinton's secretary of agriculture, and beloved by heartland farmers.
To win in Connecticut, Lieberman followed a similar strategy. In his attorney general's race, he offered himself to voters as a strict, almost square, by-the-books guy. Once in office, he became popular by doggedly prosecuting crooked car dealers, questionable charities, and even a supermarket chain that misrepresented the value of coupons. Running for the Senate in 1988, Lieberman shunned the standard image of the northeast Jewish politician by favoring the death penalty and the moment of silence in schools, while opposing new taxes. Lieberman's opponent, the Republican Lowell Weicker, openly complained during the 1988 campaign that it was somehow unfair of Lieberman to run as a hard-liner Jew, rather than a tax-and-spend liberal.
Once in office, Lieberman did not change stripes. He favored capital-gains tax cuts, made joint appearances with William Bennett to call for higher moral standards, and was one of the few Democrats--Al Gore was another--to vote in favor of the 1991 Senate resolution that allowed President George Bush to launch the Gulf War. Through the 1990s, Lieberman became a leader in the New Democrat movement, which sought to shift the party moderately to the right. In 1994, Connecticut citizens reelected him to the Senate, with 67% of their vote, one of the biggest margins in state history.
So Lieberman and Glickman became successful politicians in mainly traditionalist Christian states partly by playing against type. Both also were always very open about their religion, referring to it often to make sure people knew--which also deftly created the sense that you'd feel guilty about opposing them because people might think you were anti- Semitic. At the end of the day, they both won from Christian states because they were qualified and deserving. That they did reflects well on them, and on the voters too.