Yesterday voters in Rhode Island picked incumbent Lincoln Chafee over challenger Steve Laffey in the Republican senate primary (Chafee will now face Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in the general election). I think primary voters missed an amazing opportunity to take a stand against big-government, high taxes, and pork-barrel government waste. But before I get to that, I’d like to address my two pet peeves about this senate race.
First, I cringe every time that Chafee gets called a “moderate Republican” as he does in this FoxNews headline. A quick look at Chafee’s record reveals he is nothing of the sort. Lincoln Chafee is the most liberal “Republican” in the senate. He opposed the Bush tax cuts, supports the death tax, opposes school choice, and favors big-government spending. The Club for Growth reports that over his career he has voted with John Kerry nearly 70% of the time. Chafee’s record looks more like this agenda than anything remotely Republican.
My other pet peeve is when commentators compare the Rhode Island race to the Lieberman/Lamont primary in Connecticut. The Rhode Island race is decidedly different. While Laffey is certainly to the right of Chafee, he in no way resembles the extreme fringe that ousted Joe Lieberman in favor of Ned Lamont.
Critics of Chafee were not demanding a right-wing extremist, they are simply asking for a Republican candidate that in some way reflects the Republican platform. In contrast, Lieberman was ousted by the single-issue, anti-war left. On any other issue, he was a tried and true Democrat with a good party voting record.
Most pundits will forget about Rhode Island soon enough after the primary buzz dies off, but I think the most interested developments are yet to unfold. While a lot of people would have been thrilled with a Laffey victory, it was common knowledge that it was an uphill battle. Only one Republican incumbent senator has been knocked off in the past 25 years. It’s darn near impossible to pull off a victory over an incumbent. So what happens next?
Two years ago, Pat Toomey challenged Arlen Specter in the Republican senate primary in Pennsylvania. Similar to the Laffee/Chafee race, groups like the Club for Growth aided Toomey while the party establishment saved Specter. Specter pulled off a narrow victory. But in a weird way, it was the Toomey supporters who were victorious in the long run. They were mobilized. Two years later they knocked out and they look to have a strong showing in those state races this fall.
Santorum is up for reelection and many conservative Republicans aren’t lifting a finger to help him because they are still mad about Santorum’s support for Specter in 2004. Other Toomey supporters have forgiven Santorum and are working to defeat Bob Casey (currently in the lead) this November. Either way, it is the Toomey Republicans that have the power in Pennsylvania. Can Laffey Republicans do the same in Rhode Island? Only time will tell – but keep an eye on Rhode Island in 2008. It could get interesting.