Trouble for centrists: Is the Hill headed for a sharper split?
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To people who care about which party controls the Senate – and a Democratic takeover of that chamber is not impossible – Chafee's seat is crucial. And to Republican moderates working hard to protect their own, the argument to Republican primary voters in Rhode Island for nominating Chafee is obvious.Skip to next paragraph
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"It's a fact in Rhode Island that if Linc Chafee is defeated in the primary, the Democrats will pick up that seat," says Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership.
It may be Chafee's ironic misfortune that he is up for reelection in a year when Democrats and independents are showing increasing impatience with Republican control of Capitol Hill. In Rhode Island, he is more popular among Democrats than among Republicans – he is the only Republican senator to vote against going to war in Iraq and he did not vote to reelect Presi-dent Bush in 2004 – but he could end up losing in November, if nominated, just because he has an "R" after his name.
"This is a year when the Democratic base is really ticked off," says Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "Democrats really want Democrats representing them."
Ultimately, the future of "centrism" in the Senate is not in as much peril as it is in the House. Even if Sens. Chafee and Joseph Lieberman (now running in Connecticut as an independent) lose their seats, there will be plenty of moderates remaining, such as Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, and Democrats Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Ken Salazar of Colorado.
The club could even gain some new members come January. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, a moderate Democrat known for his opposition to abortion rights, continues to poll ahead of his opponent, Rick Santorum, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate. In Tennessee, Democratic Congressman Harold Ford Jr., a centrist activist in the House, is in a tight race to replace retiring Sen. Bill Frist (R).
Professor Jacobson at UCSD, an expert on political polarization, also sees how new voices of moderation would enter the scene if Democrats take over the House. To win a majority, Democrats will have to win some Republican-leaning districts, and those members will have to take some moderate positions to keep those seats.
Also, having a Republican president and probably a Republican Senate could have a moderating effect on a newly Democratic House.
But there's a counter scenario: If the Democrats do retake the House, after 12 years in the wilderness, they may be tempted to behave as the Republicans did after taking over in 1994 – showing little interest in compromising with the minority.
"They could overplay their hand by being too partisan," says Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. "They could go back on the promises they made about running the House and, in two years, be back in the minority."