Chafee Feels the Heat

On a dead-end street pinched between T.F. Green Airport and the Amtrak rail line, Sen. Lincoln Chafee squints into the sun as he looks over a field of overgrown grass and rusting trucks, the kind of fenced-off wasteland where mobsters might dump a body in a movie.

Chafee has eyed this lot, where a chemical company once stood, since he was mayor of Warwick, and his father, the late Sen. John Chafee, squeezed the first drip of federal money to clean up the land and make plans for a new train station.

Now, from his own seat on the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works, Lincoln Chafee has steered another $60 million to the project, enough, he says, to create a transportation mecca linking trains, the airport and Route 95.

As he readies his run for re-election, Chafee revels in the federal money, as he steels himself for a rough campaign.

“I’ve got a target on my back,” he says, ruefully.

Chafee, a moderate, knows he is in a vise _ not sufficiently liberal for Democrats, not enough of a conservative for Republicans who admire President Bush.

More than a year away, the 2006 Senate election in Rhode Island is already developing as one of the nation’s most closely watched races. Republicans control 55 Senate seats, Democrats 44, and there is one independent who votes with Democrats. In next year’s midterm election, Democrats will defend 17 seats and the GOP 15.

So far, three candidates have started running and raising serious money from donors around the country _ Chafee, 52, and Democrats Sheldon Whitehouse, 49, the former U.S. attorney and state attorney general, and Secretary of State Matt Brown, 34. The three have already raised nearly $3 million.

Cranston’s Republican mayor, Stephen Laffey, is fanning reports that he, too, will enter the contest.

“From all the Web sites, the fund-raisers and the national interest, you would think the Senate election was this November,” says George Nee, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO.

Themes are emerging. Chafee will focus on the fruits of incumbency, and on his independence. Whitehouse wants to preserve traditional Democratic social programs, and make health care affordable. Brown promises a “different kind of leadership,” and cites his community service.

Laffey has slammed both parties in Congress as too free-spending.

Chaffee’s seat is seen as one of the two best shots Democrats have to knock off a sitting Republican senator. (The other is in Pennsylvania.) Chafee is the lone Republican in the Senate who represents a state that voted 54 percent or more for Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in his presidential campaign last year against Bush.

The president is not well regarded in Rhode Island. A Brown University poll in June showed just 24 percent of state voters approved of the way Bush is handling his job. The survey carried an error margin of plus or minus 4.5 points.

Polls suggest Chafee is beatable; a match-up against Whitehouse showed Chafee ahead, 41 percent to 36 percent, with the rest undecided. It is never a good sign, say political experts, for an incumbent to be that far under 50 percent approaching an election year.

Chafee and his father are the only two Republicans to hold a Rhode Island Senate seat since the Great Depression. The younger Chafee inherited the seat when his father died in office in 1999. Then-Gov. Lincoln Almond appointed Chafee to fill out the term.

Chafee won the seat on his own in 2000, trouncing Democrat Bob Weygand.

If past is prologue, a Chafee victory next year puts him on a track to keep the job as long as he wants.

Rhode Island voters like incumbents; they have not tossed a sitting senator since 1936.

Times have changed. As recently as the 1980s, states often split their votes in Senate and presidential contests. Stiletto-sharp partisanship has made it more difficult for senators to survive in states that vote for the other party in presidential campaigns. This trend has made almost extinct Southern Democrats and Northeastern Republicans.

Republicans now hold almost 80 percent of “red state” Senate seats, the states that typically go Republican in presidential contests. Democrats occupy nearly 80 percent of “blue state” _ Democratic _ Senate seats.

As a GOP moderate-to-liberal senator, Chafee is one of the last of a flock that once had a strong voice in the GOP.

Most of Washington’s political establishment believes that Chafee is most vulnerable to a primary challenge from a conservative such as Laffey, who has criticized Chafee since the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Chafee says he has gotten used to walking the liberal-conservative tightrope; he says he knows that his every vote will be parsed between now and the election. Asked if Laffey will run, Chafee claims no special insight. But like everyone else in Rhode Island’s political community, he hears speculation all the time.

“One hour I get a call from somebody saying Laffey’s going to run in a primary, and an hour later there’s a call saying he’s running as an independent,” says Chafee.

As Chafee enters what could be the most difficult race he will ever run, fending off challenges from the political left and right, he’ll campaign in the center. “I’m right in the middle,” he said of his voting record, “right smack in the middle as the one who votes both conservative and liberal.”

He says he’s comfortable in the middle. That’s where he thinks Rhode Island is, too.