Monday, September 25, 2006

Rhode Island U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

September 25, 2006
43 Days Until Election Day

Rhode Island U.S. Senate

Status: Republican Incumbent
2004 Presidential Result: Blue State (East)

Outlook: Tossup (R)

In what is perhaps the strongest state in the country for Democrats, the Republicans will find it extremely challenging to hold on to a U.S. Senate seat, that has been held by the party for decades, but nonetheless, the national GOP is breathing a sigh of relief that the incumbent has recently won a brutal primary fight, as his candidacy at least keeps Republicans in the game.

In 2000, veteran Republican Senator John Chafee, a highly respected moderate announced that he would not seek reelection and the path was cleared for his son Lincoln, to run to succeed his father in an open seat race. Then, John Chafee passed away somewhat suddenly and the state’s Republican Governor appointed the announced candidate, Lincoln Chafee, to fill the vacancy created by his father’s passing, giving him a leg up for the fall election. In that contest, Chafee easily dispatched a Democrat opponent, who was considerably to the right of Chafee on some issues, including abortion, by a margin of victory larger than many expected.

Since Democrats had a strong Senate election cycle in 2000, Chafee was the deciding factor in what would be an evenly divided Senate, in which the Republicans barely controlled the majority due to the tie-breaking vote of the Vice President. A few months into the new Congress though, another moderate to liberal Republican, Jim Jeffords of Vermont left the party, and switched control of the Senate to the Democrats. At that time, there was much speculation that Chafee would be the next to leave the GOP, either to become a Democrat, or join Jeffords as an Independent who would caucus with the Democrats. Chafee apparently gave the ideas some thought, but ultimately decided to stick it out in the GOP minority, perhaps out of the memory of his father, who while he had also been quite moderate, was considered a loyal Republican.

The fact that Chafee has held so much sway over the continued possibility of a party switch have given him a good deal of influence within the Senate, as neither party wants to do anything to upset him. The Republicans regained control of the Senate in 2002, but Chafee has continued to vote more with the Democrats than any other Senator, and has been considered a thorn in the GOP’s side, and somebody, who unlike his father, is not particularly well liked within the Senate. He would be the only Republican Senator to vote against authorizing the use of military force against Iraq in 2003 and in a move that greatly angered many Republicans, the Senator announced that he would not cast a vote for President Bush in his 2004 reelection campaign. Instead, Chafee announced that he would cast a write-in vote for George Bush, the 41st President.

In spite of his maverick ways, many Republicans continued to realize that in a state as staunchly Democrat as Rhode Island, Chafee’s political positioning, which allowed him to appeal to a good deal of liberals and Democrats, as well as the tradition of his family name, rendered him as perhaps the state’s only Republican who had the ability to win a federal election in Rhode Island. While polls showed that Chafee was a solid favorite to win reelection in 2006, several Democrats lined up to take their shot at him and there was much talk as to whether a potential Democrat primary could split the vote allowing a Pro-Life social conservative to be nominated to take on the pro-choice Chafee, and if that possibility would be most likely to bring about his defeat, with conservatives voting for the Democrat. That scenario had not come to pass in 2000, so other Democrats believed the way to win was to nominate a liberal, who shared Chafee’s positions on many issues, but who would possibly be able to get elected, due to the Democrat label.

Ultimately, the Democrat field came down to only liberals, as two prominent Pro-Life candidates, as well as the son of another U.S. Senator, Congressman Patrick Kennedy, declined to make the race. The field was winnowed even further when one major contender dropped out, leaving the nomination essentially sewn up for former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse. Like Chafee, Whitehouse is the son of a prominent wealthy Yankee family, but in spite of having won statewide office before, has a less than perfect political record. In 2002, Whitehouse ran for Governor and was considered the Democrat frontrunner, but was defeated in the primary by a candidate, who would go on to lose her third consecutive Gubernatorial general election as the party’s nominee. While Whitehouse appears to be ideologically compatible with the state, there is criticism that he is not very personable or that strong of a campaigner.

At the same time Democrats were starting to unite around a candidate, the situation for Chafee and Republicans was greatly complicated by the Republican primary challenge of Steve Laffey, the mayor of Cranston, who came from a working class Catholic background, and somebody far more conservative than Chafee on the issues. Republicans from the White House to Capitol Hill tried very hard in vain to keep Laffey out of the race, fearing that he could damage Chafee in the primary, or even defeat him, and make it impossible to win against the Democrats, but Laffey was undeterred, and received significant financial backing from conservatives across the country, and in particular the Club for Growth.

The Laffey-Chafee primary quickly turned into a bitter and personal battle in which the two candidates and their surrogates beat each other up across the state. Laffey was able to capitalize on the discontent against Chafee by conservatives and many Republicans and for a time looked like he might very well knock off the incumbent in the September primary. Chafee was aided by the active support of the National Republican Senatorial Committee who spent heavily on television ads, which harshly attacked Laffey in an attempt to drive up his negatives. At times, the national Republicans and the Chafee campaign attacked Laffey from both the right and the left, and raised questions about his record, his temperament, and his electability. Some of Laffey’s supporters seemed to all but admit that he would not be able to defeat Whitehouse, but claimed it was better to run a real Republican on the party’s principles, than have to deal with an arrogant “RINO.”

During the course of the primary, Chafee continued to anger Republicans by such things as taking a position on the Israel-Hezbollah war, which few Republicans concurred with, and also refusing to support the confirmations of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and UN Ambassador John Bolton. Despite these flashes of liberalism, the White House political operation led by Karl Rove, worked very hard to insure that the incumbent Chafee would be re-nominated and when the dust settled, Chafee, who some polls showed trailing Laffey by wide margins, won the primary by a somewhat surprising 54-46 margin, indicating an impressive ability for the national Republican machinery to bring out the type of voters that Chafee needed in heavy margins, and also once again showing Chafee being able to surpass expectations set by public opinion polls.

Republicans were clearly relieved with the primary result, as polls had shown Laffey would have lost to Whitehouse by landslide proportions and also because a defeat in a primary by a moderate to liberal Republican could have been spun by Democrats nationwide as the type of a party purging against somebody who did not fit an ideological mold on certain issues, such as what happened among the Democrats to Joe Lieberman in a Connecticut U.S. Senate primary. With Chafee as the Republican nominee, Democrats are still fiercely contesting the state and the Senate seat, but they will now be required to pour several million dollars into the state in an effort to elect Whitehouse, whereas had Laffey been the GOP candidate, they could have basically taken the seat over without Republicans bothering to put up much of a fight. That DSCC money that will go to Whitehouse will be money that does not go to other competitive states. Such a tactic is necessary though because if the Democrats have any chance of winning a Senate majority this year, they absolutely must win in Rhode Island.

While Chafee emerged as the winner a few weeks back, the tough and negative primary has clearly taken its toll and made the task of winning reelection far more difficult than it otherwise would have been. The Senator, who once held a significant lead over Democrat opponents, in spite of many conservatives claiming they would be undecided in such a race, fell behind Whitehouse in most polls as Chafee and Laffey fought tooth and nail, driving up the negatives of both men, as Whitehouse pretty much was able to enjoy the fracas from the sidelines. Polls taken since the primary have shown Whitehouse now leading by as little as a single point and by as many as eight points. The race is undoubtedly close now, and in a state that is now heavily populated, the election is likely to come down to turnout, as polls have been less than reliable in many recent Rhode Island primaries and general elections, specifically understating support for Republicans and for Lincoln Chafee himself.

If Chaffee is to win another six-year term, he clearly has to be able to convince many of those who voted for Laffey in the primary to hold their noses and vote for him in November. The threat of a potential Democrat majority in the Senate, and the candidacy of the liberal Whitehouse may be enough to make many do that, but it will be a balancing act for Chafee, as the prospect of appealing to voters to think about who might control Congress, might work to the Democrat Whitehouse’s advantage. After having success defining his primary opponent based on differences on the issues, Chafee might be finding it somewhat awkward to switch gears and run against an opponent of another party, with whom he might actually be more similar to, both ideologically and culturally.

Ultimately, Chafee’s team will hope that enough Independents and Democrats, who have backed Chafees in the past in Rhode Island will believe that the Senator’s is an important voice to have within the Republican Party, as a moderating force, and that they will once again vote for him based on his record and position on the issues, and not just based on party loyalty. Still though, Chafee will need to do something to convince Republicans who have not approved of his performance in office, that he is still a better option than his opponent, and that it is in their best interest to cast a vote for him in November.

This race is clearly a tossup, and while the polls currently show Whitehouse ahead by a narrow margin, Chafee could still very well win the election, as lingering hard feelings from his primary battle gradually subside, to as large of an extent as might be possible. As unpopular as the incumbent is among many within his own party and as unpopular as his party is among many within in the state, he remains a good ideological match for Rhode Island and a stronger and more appealing campaigner than his Democrat challenger.

It might be said when the election is over that Chafee’s campaign team, with the assistance of outside Republicans became battle ready because of such a strong primary fight and the momentum propelled them to a victory in November. If Chafee loses though, much of the blame will probably have to go to Laffey and the conservative forces that did much to damage the incumbent, both among the Republican base, and among swing voters in the state.

If Chafee wins, there will likely be continued speculation that he will officially abandon the Republican Party on Capitol Hill, especially if he would be able to join or cause a Democrat majority to occur, in spite of the fact that a reelected Chafee would have to owe his political survival to the national Republicans he has been clashing with over the past six years. He could indeed possibly change parties nonetheless though, but at least Republicans would have a considerable chance of continuing to count his seat in their column, while if he had been defeated based on past party disloyalty, the GOP could have considered his seat to be certainly lost.

Chafee campaign link:

2006 Senate races predicted thus far: 15 D, 9 R
Post-election Senate balance of power predicted thus far: 42 D, 49 R