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Trouble for centrists: Is the Hill headed for a sharper split?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 14, 2006


Connecticut's junior senator wasn't the only congressional moderate named Joe to lose his primary election last week. Rep. Joe Schwarz (R) of Michigan also went down in a stiff challenge from within his own party – in this case, from the right.

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And now another moderate senator – Lincoln Chafee (R) of Rhode Island – is fighting for his political life. If he survives the well-funded challenge of a conservative in his Sept. 12 primary, he faces another tough fight in the general election.

In an election year marked by strong anti-incumbent feeling and the potential for significant Republican losses, many of Congress's moderates – those willing to buck their party leadership at times – are vulnerable. In the House, the potential loss of Republican moderates could intensify the chamber's partisan polarization, adding to the challenges of George W. Bush's final two years as president.

"If Democrats defeat moderate Republicans, it will have the mirror effect of 1994, where you had Republicans defeating moderate Democrats," says Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. "That boosts polarization, no question."

The long-developing trend toward homogeneous congressional districts – those where partisan preference in presidential elections matches the partisan preference for member of Congress – may become even more pronounced with the vote Nov. 7.

Regional "purity" could also be enhanced. Just as the Southern Democrat has become nearly extinct, so, too, could the "Rockefeller Republican," named for Nelson Rockefeller, former governor of New York and a liberal Republican. The Northeast, home to one-third of the most vulnerable House Republicans, could lose many longtime members.

And in the Senate, the epitome of the Rockefeller Republican, Senator Chafee, is facing a tough primary challenge from Stephen Laffey, the conservative mayor of Cranston, R.I. Mr. Laffey is backed by the antitax, anti-"pork" Club for Growth, a Washington-based group that spent more than $1 million in helping to defeat the moderate Congressman Schwarz last Tuesday. But the Chafee-Laffey race is Club for Growth's marquee contest this cycle. So far, the group's members have sent $600,000 to Laffey, and its political action committee is running ads against Chafee.

If Laffey wins the nomination, polls show the Democratic candidate, former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse, beating him soundly. In a blue state where a plurality of voters are independent and only 12 percent are registered Republicans, Chafee would seem to represent the Republicans' best shot at keeping that seat. A Rasmussen Reports poll released last week showed Mr. Whitehouse beating Chafee in the general election, 44 percent to 38 percent.

To the Club for Growth, there's nothing to lose in knocking off the incumbent. "Chafee and Whitehouse are alike on economic issues, so there's not much downside," says David Keating, the group's executive director. "The upside with Laffey is large. He could be a transforming figure in Rhode Island and provide a strong outsider voice in Washington."