Lincoln Chafee, a Republican senator in one of the nation’s most Democratic states, never knows where the next political attack will come from.
The moderate Chafee has always walked a tightrope in Rhode Island, appealing to the state’s deep pool of independent and Democratic voters while trying to stay on the good side of the much smaller conservative Republican base.
But now he finds himself under fire from both the right and left in a two-tier battle for political survival that could be crucial to Democratic hopes of recapturing the Senate.
Chafee’s refusal to back President George W. Bush on a host of issues — from the Iraq war to tax cuts and Samuel Alito’s Supreme Court nomination — has angered some Republicans and prompted a primary challenge from Stephen Laffey, the conservative mayor of Cranston.
If he survives the September 12 primary, Chafee faces a short sprint to the November election against a likely Democratic opponent, former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse, who has been quick to link him with Bush and national Republicans.
The twin challenges have put Chafee atop of the list of most endangered Republicans as Democrats try to pick up the six seats they need to regain control of the U.S. Senate in November.
“I’m caught in the middle,” Chafee, who was appointed to the Senate in 1999 on the death of his father, veteran Sen. John Chafee, told Reuters. “It’s a funny universe where I have these two opposite constituencies I have to try to appeal to.”
Chafee is not laughing about the primary bid by Laffey, a former investment adviser who blasts him as a big-spending son of privilege and a Washington insider who is out of touch with Rhode Islanders.
“He sees this as an entitlement program where he gets to stay in the Senate because that is the way he was brought up,” Laffey said in an interview, calling Chafee weak on national security and beholden to special interests.
“He thinks coming home at election time and announcing another pork barrel project will buy him votes. Voters are smarter than that,” he said.
Chafee, a descendant of one of the original five families that settled the New England state of Rhode Island, easily won election to a full six-year term in 2000 but has frustrated many Republicans by repeatedly breaking ranks with the party.
He opposed Bush’s tax cuts, private Social Security accounts and drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, and was the only Senate Republican to vote against the Iraq war. He even cast a presidential write-in vote for Bush’s father, former President Bush, in 2004.
“My primary voters overwhelmingly want me to be more supportive of the administration, and in the general election just the opposite, more critical of the administration,” the soft-spoken Chafee said.
“Nobody can accuse me of making a political move since I’m angering somebody with everything I do,” he said.
Senate Republicans have tolerated Chafee’s maverick ways, recognizing no other Republican could hold the seat for the party in an overwhelmingly Democratic state.
First lady Laura Bush, more popular in Rhode Island than her husband, visited last month for a Chafee fund raiser, and the national Republican Senate campaign committee has aired ads on his behalf.
“I appreciate that Chafee stands up to the Republicans,” said Jim Malloy, a Cumberland energy consultant and registered independent. “Democrats are just trying to play a game and are not standing up for anything.”
Chafee’s mild-mannered style and years spent shoeing horses at racetracks around North America made him a different sort of politician when he entered politics in the 1980s, eventually becoming mayor of Warwick.
A recent poll by the anti-tax group Club for Growth, which backs Laffey, showed the two running even three months before an unpredictable primary that, because of the state’s tiny Republican population, could attract fewer than 30,000 voters.
Independents, who make up more than half the electorate, can vote in the primary, clouding predictions on the turnout.
“It all depends on who shows up and no one has a clue,” said Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence. “The Republican base is upset with Chafee but independents love him.”
© Reuters 2006