Politics & Policy

Dump Chafee

“I want to support President Bush’s choice to the Supreme Court,” said Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island on January 30. “The president did win the election.”

It was a bizarre statement because Chafee not only refused to support Bush’s most recent choice for the Supreme Court–he was the single Republican to oppose the confirmation of Samuel Alito–but also refused to support Bush’s reelection in 2004. On Election Day, he wrote in the name of Bush’s father, in “symbolic protest” of the current president’s positions on abortion, gay marriage, oil drilling, tax cuts, and Iraq.

One wonders: Why is Chafee a Republican at all? The senator appears none too sure himself. In 2004, when USA Today asked whether he’d consider switching parties, Chafee replied, “I’m not ruling it out.”

The life of a Rhode Island Republican certainly is not an easy one–John Kerry won the state by 21 points. It would be unreasonable to expect Chafee to earn a 100-percent rating from the American Conservative Union. Yet his lifetime score of 41 percent is pathetic. No Republican senator, including Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter, ranks lower. In December, the Boston Globe observed that Chafee’s “liberal positions would be well-suited for a centrist Democrat.” True enough–except that several centrist Democrats actually supported Alito, putting them to the right of Chafee on one of the most important votes they will cast this year.

Lincoln Almond, the former governor who appointed Chafee to the Senate in 1999–and a Republican who knows how to win elections in Rhode Island–said that he was “disappointed” in the senator’s decision to oppose Alito. Indeed, Republicans in the Ocean State ought to be so thoroughly disappointed in Chafee by now that they refuse to vote for him this year.

The argument that conservatives should support Chafee rests entirely on the assumption that he’s the only Republican who can win in Rhode Island. This logic may be what has led the National Republican Senatorial Committee to continue throwing resources behind him. The assumption may or may not be true, but, whatever the case, it is far from clear that the GOP–to say nothing of conservatives–gains anything from Chafee’s continued presence in the Senate. When votes really matter, he can’t be counted on. Positions such as the one he took on Alito allow Democrats and the media to speak of “bipartisan opposition” to the Bush administration. And if the GOP’s majority ever depended on Chafee alone, there’s every reason to believe he’d bolt the party, just as James Jeffords of Vermont did in 2001.

“ The worst possible outcome is only

that Rhode Islanders will trade a virtual Democrat

for a real one. ”

There is an alternative. Steven Laffey, the Republican mayor of Cranston, is running against Chafee in the September primary. His underdog campaign has shown both pluck and promise. Laffey has a track record of winning Democratic votes: That’s the only way he could have been elected two times as mayor of Cranston, a city of about 80,000 residents, most of them Democrats. But on key issues, Laffey is a conservative: He supports tax cuts and the war in Iraq, opposes corporate welfare and other forms of wasteful spending, and is pro-life. The Club for Growth has decided to back him. His campaign has unfortunately chosen to bash “Big Oil” in some of its early advertising–but, as we said, it’s difficult to be a Republican in Rhode Island.

Even if Laffey were to win the primary but lose the general election, beating Chafee would send a helpful message to the kind of Republican who thinks Chafee’s “independence” is something to admire and emulate. (Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine come to mind.) That message: that Republican voters will not be taken for granted just because they are in the minority in their state. Then there’s the tantalizing possibility that Laffey might actually win both the primary and the general election. It’s a chance worth taking. What do conservatives have to lose? The worst possible outcome is only that Rhode Islanders will trade a virtual Democrat for a real one.

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