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August 12, 2006
Does Chafee Equal Lieberman For The GOP?

Now that the left wing of the Democratic Party has kneecapped Joe Lieberman, a staunch liberal but a hawk on Iraq, some have accused the conservatives of the GOP of committing a similar mistake with Lincoln Chafee, the liberal Senator from Rhode Island. The fiscal conservatives at the Club for Growth have supported Chafee's primary opponent Steven Laffey in a bit to unseat the incumbent, and it appears that Chafee may be in danger of losing his re-election bid before November:

Fresh off their first victory over a Republican incumbent, GOP conservatives seeking party purity on taxes and spending are focused on ousting moderate Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island.

The Club for Growth and its 36,000 members spent around $1 million to help challenger Tim Walberg unseat first-term Rep. Joe Schwarz in Michigan's Republican primary on Tuesday. The win came despite Schwarz's support from President Bush and the National Rifle Association. ...

This year, the group's top priority is defeating Chafee, who angered many Republicans by voting against President Bush's tax cuts and then casting a write-in vote for the president's father in the last election. The Club has helped Cranston, R.I., Mayor Stephen Laffey raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to unseat Chafee, and polls show the two Republicans running even a month before the Sept. 12 primary.

The prospect of a Laffey win worries national Republicans, who consider Chafee the party's best bet for holding the seat in a heavily Democratic state. Polls show Laffey trailing far behind the leading Democratic candidate, former Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse.

The Club's Web site says that's fine: "It wouldn't be much of a loss if a new Democrat senator were elected, as he would vote much the same as Chafee does now."

Centrist Joe Gandelman at the always-interesting The Moderate Voice says the Republicans are about to go over the same cliff as the Democrats did in Connecticut:

The Lieberman loss and the Chafee battle are likely to mean politicos of both parties are going to be far more careful in the future about adhering to strictly party lines. Some will argue this would be a welcome development for American politics — that party choices would be clearly delineated. Others will argue that it will mean less give and take — less political horse-trading — since politicos of both parties wouldn't want to be seen as partisan turncoats.

It's a good point, and one that the GOP and conservatives should keep in mind whenever attempting a primary fight against an established Republican incumbent. This weapon cuts both ways, and losing a seat in the Senate or House has some serious implications for policy and national security. We should remember to make sure that we do not make the perfect the enemy of the good. I'd rather have a Republican who votes with me 70% of the time than a Democrat who votes with me 30% of the time, all other things being equal.

In this case, however, the comparison between Connecticut and Rhode Island races does not wash. Lieberman';s voting record showed that he solidly supported his party on its agenda and policy. He consistenly voted in the middle of his Senate caucus. In the Poole reports for the last three sessions, at least 15 Democrats voted more conservatively than Lieberman in each. The notion that a politician whose voting record remained almost dead center of his caucus could be out of touch with the Democratic mainstream is laughable on its face.

Chafee presents a much different picture. In the last three sessions that comprises his entire last term of office, Chafee has consistently been the outlier of the GOP caucus. In two sessions, he managed to vote less with his caucus than a Democrat (Ben Nelson this session, Zell Miller in the 107th). Chafee can be described very reasonably as outside the mainstream of Republican thought.

Does that make it a good idea to target Chafee and potentially lose the seat to the Democrats? Chafee has up to now caucused with the Republicans to ensure GOP control of the Senate. He could have pulled a Jim Jeffords in the 107th but declined. That being said, Chafee has consistently created friction within the caucus, first by refusing to support George Bush's re-election campaign (when Chafee was not running for office and risked little), and then by joining the Gang of 14 to undermine presidential prerogative in judicial nominations. He has set the table for Republican activist opposition and seems to have almost invited it.

I'm supporting Laffey and even sent a contribution to his campaign. I hope he wins the primary. If he doesn't, it's hard to imagine a Democrat that would vote with the Republicans much less than Chafee. In this case, the primary challenge is warranted and the risk is small.

Of course, we also won't see blackface and DDOS attacks in this election, either.

UPDATE: FreePA takes issue with the 70-30 argument above and makes the point that one should always vote one's principles. I agree with that, but one also has to keep in mind the risks and rewards of changing horses because of one particular issue. I would certainly agree that Pat Toomey made a better candidate than Arlen Specter, especially given Specter's efforts to prove FreePA's argument over the past two years.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 12, 2006 10:07 AM

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