By a vote of 54 percent to 46 percent, Sen. Lincoln Chafee beat Stephen Laffey in Tuesday’s GOP primary in Rhode Island — defeating the hopes of conservatives who were eager to upset the Senate’s most liberal Republican.
This morning, Washington’s GOP establishment is breathing a big sigh of relief: It believes Chafee is the only Republican who can possibly hold this blue-state seat in November. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, led by Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, recently warned that a Laffey victory would compel it to concede the race to the Democratic nominee, Sheldon Whitehouse, who is Rhode Island’s former attorney general.
A few days ago, the New York Times reported that the national GOP had poured $1.2 million into the contest, all for Chafee. But what has this generosity purchased? Even more of the frustration that was felt as recently as last Thursday, when Chafee refused to say he would support the confirmation of John Bolton as America’s ambassador to the United Nations. Previously, the senator had spoken in favor of Bolton. Yet this eleventh-hour waffling — a Chafee specialty — forced the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to table the matter.
Chafee’s conduct with respect to Bolton fit a depressingly familiar pattern: He also has opposed the president’s tax cuts, the war in Iraq, and the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito. Earlier this year, he described Sen. Russ Feingold’s resolution to censure President Bush as “positive” because it put the issue of wiretapping “into the public awareness.” In 2004, Chafee could not even bring himself to vote for the reelection of President Bush — he wrote in the name of Bush’s father instead.
There is a case to be made that the GOP establishment had to back Chafee to protect its Senate majority. Karl Rove has noted that he would rather have a Rhode Island senator who supports the Bush administration some of the time (i.e., Chafee) than a senator who supports it almost none of the time (i.e., a Democrat). Yet there’s no special reason to believe that Chafee will even remain in the GOP: Two years ago, when USA Today asked him about switching parties, Chafee replied: “I’m not ruling it out.” This man could be the next Jim Jeffords.
The money Republicans have spent on Chafee is money that they haven’t spent on Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Jim Talent of Missouri — embattled conservative incumbents whose reelections will go down to the wire on November 7. Because Chafee is no shoo-in, he will now soak up even more resources that might be put to better use elsewhere.
Stephen Laffey, a capable mayor of Cranston, ran an energetic campaign that mixed conservative and populist themes. His loss was by no means an exercise in futility: Sometimes it’s better to fight and lose than not to fight at all. Two years ago, Pat Toomey nearly defeated Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania’s GOP primary. Yesterday, Laffey gave Chafee a genuine scare. Both Toomey and Laffey received crucial support from the Club for Growth. Senators are a notoriously risk-averse crowd. And now, for the second election cycle in a row, Republican senators have received a sharp reminder that if they behave too much like liberals, they may not be senators for long.