What primaries say about US voter mood

Some moderates, including Senator Chafee of Rhode Island, emerged winners in intraparty contests Tuesday.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In the end, the most-watched race of the Sept. 12 primaries became the dog that didn't bark. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, the most liberal Republican in the Senate, beat back a fierce challenge by a populist conservative supported by the antitax Club for Growth.

A loss by Senator Chafee would have been nearly without precedent in modern times – the second senator to lose in the primaries, following Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman's defeat in Connecticut last month. Headlines would have screamed about voters clamoring for change, and about ideological purges in both parties.

The outcome – a 54-to-46 Chafee victory over Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey, relatively close for an incumbent in a primary – suggests that the national Republican Party did indeed need to pull out all the stops, as it did, to ensure that the conservative was not the nominee and a near-certain loser in November. Rhode Island is one of the most liberal states in the country. Before the primary race heated up, sparking a flurry of Republican registration by independents and even some Democrats to help save Chafee, only about 11 percent of voters were registered Republican.

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But the dynamic in Rhode Island was completely different from that of Connecticut. In the Lieberman race, no viable Republican is running, so the Demo- crats could afford to hold a primary centered on a major issue – US policy in Iraq. The Republicans could not afford to let the Senate primary be all about taxes and pork-barrel spending and the Iraq war. It needed to be about electability.

"In Rhode Island, had Chafee lost, the Democrats would have picked up that seat," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Renominating Chafee is "a matter of pure pragmatism on the part of Republicans in Rhode Island."

Thus Chafee, the only Republican senator to vote against authorizing US military action in Iraq in 2002 – and who did not even vote to reelect President Bush in 2004 – was treated to lots of national Republican money in his quest for renomination. Dr. Sabato surmises that if just the true Republicans had voted in the primary, Laffey probably would have won 60 percent to 40 percent or better.

"It was the independents and even Democrats who switched registration who saved Chafee," he says, noting that small-state, personal loyalty to the patrician senator among non-Republicans likely played a role. Chafee is one of Rhode Island's political brand names; Lincoln's father, John, was a longtime, beloved senator from the state.

Still, the Chafee name and record may not be enough to save the current senator in November. He faces a tough challenge from former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse (D). Mr. Whitehouse's father roomed with John Chafee at Yale University, a sign of just how small Rhode Island is.

By keeping that race competitive for the GOP, Chafee's primary victory makes it that much more difficult for the Democrats to retake control of the Senate in November. The party needs to make a net gain of six seats to win control.

In other Sept. 12 primaries:

•In Arizona's eighth congressional district, Randy Graf, a conservative running against illegal immigration, defeated the moderate Republican, handing a major opportunity to the Democrats to take over a seat currently held by retiring Rep. Jim Kolbe (R). State Sen. Gabrielle Giffords won the Democratic primary.

•In Maryland, Rep. Ben Cardin defeated former Rep. Kweisi Mfume for the Democratic Senate nomination. Mr. Cardin will face Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R), one of the handful of African-Americans running for high-level office this November.

•In Washington, D.C., city council member Adrian Fenty handily won the Democratic primary for mayor, and will almost certainly coast to victory in November. At age 35, he would be the youngest mayor in city history, and also the first native Washingtonian to win that position. Washington has had elected mayors since it gained home rule in 1973. Mr. Fenty defeated D.C. council chair and veteran politician Linda Cropp, a sign of voter hunger for change.

•In Michigan, state Rep. Keith Ellison is now in position to become the first Muslim elected to Congress, as well as the first African-American to the House from Minnesota. He won the Democratic primary, in a highly Democratic district, to replace retiring Rep. Martin Sabo (D).

•In New Hampshire's first congressional district, antiwar Democrat Carol Shea-Porter won a primary upset, defeating the party's favored candidate, state House minority leader Jim Craig. Ms. Shea-Porter will face Rep. Jeb Bradley (R) in November. The Bradley seat appears on most lists of competitive House races, and the Iraq war is likely to be a central issue in the general election. Shea-Porter favors a deadline for withdrawal, while Bradley favors withdrawal only after Iraq is stable.

•In New York, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) cruised to renomination, with 83 percent of the vote, over antiwar candidate Jonathan Tasini. Senator Clinton is expected to win reelection easily in November, thus paving the way for her to address the biggest question of her political career: Will she run for president in 2008?

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