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Will Chafee Be The Next Moderate to Lose? (posted August 8, 2006)

With the Rhode Island primary coming up on September 12, all eyes are on the Ocean State. Senator Joe Lieberman's defeat in the Connecticut primary underscores a trend that has been unfolding for several years now, the purging of moderates in both parties. Befitting the era of political polarization in which we live, Democrats want a real Democrat and Republicans want leaders who stay true to GOP principles. That dynamic cost Lieberman his party's nomination and now political observers wonder whether the same fate will befall Senator Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island.

Chafee is one of the few moderates left in the Republican party. He opposed the Iraq War and voted against President George W. Bush's tax cuts. This has angered his Republican base and led to a strenuous primary challenge from conservate Stephen Laffey, the mayor of Cranston. Both candidates have gone thermonuclear and launched a series of attack ads on the opponent. The $64,000 question is whether Chafee survives the primary.

There are several factors that should help Chafee win the primary (though he ultimately may lose the general election to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse). First is the fact that Independents can vote in the GOP primary. With 50 percent of the state's electorate declaring themselves to be Independent and with the ability of Independents to walk into the polling place, declare themselves a Republican, and cast a vote, Chafee needs a big Independent vote to fight back the Laffey challenge. If only traditional Republican voters turn out in the primary, Chafee loses. However, with no competitive Democrat primary, look for large numbers of Independents to vote in that primary. Those Independents probably will save Chafee in the primary and keep him in the November running.

In addition, Chafee's stance against Iraq and against many of the domestic priorities of the Bush Administration should shield him from the voter discontent that torpedoed Senator Lieberman. Chafee is the Senate Republican most likely to vote against Bush, and this creates distance between himself and the unpopular Republican president. Opponents will find no pictures of Bush laying a kiss and friendly greeting on Chafee the way the president did Lieberman.

The last factor that helps Chafee in the primary is Laffey's high negatives. Recent polling shows that of all the Senate candidates, Laffey has the highest unfavorable ratings. His bomb-throwing political style has polarized the electorate and made it difficult for his candidacy to catch on. Laffey supports the president's policies in several areas, and this should insulate Chafee from a primary defeat.