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In the latest test of the country’s politics of polarization, the middle ground held on.
Rhode Island Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee said his victory Tuesday against a conservative challenger sent a message across the nation that moderate Republicans remained “alive and kicking” after beating back a challenger that ran to his political right.
“Partisan politics must not prevail,” he said.
His primary win over Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey was notable in a year that saw moderates from each party lose primaries to hard-line candidates. Chafee thanked Democratic-leaning independents for supporting him, while he also got backing from the Bush administration — with his seat critical to Republicans trying to hold a Senate majority — even after he bucked them on Iraq, taxes and the environment.
The Rhode Island Senate primary was the most closely watched on the last big day of primaries before the November elections, with races also in Arizona, Delaware, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia.
But another test of conservatives versus moderates for an Arizona House seat brought a different outcome, with the potential to play a part in the larger fight for control of Congress.
Conservative former lawmaker Randy Graf, who ran hard against illegal immigration in the district that stretches from Tucson to the Mexican border, beat moderate state Rep. Steve Huffman 43 percent to 37 percent.
National GOP leaders angered local Republican candidates when they jumped into the race to support Huffman for the seat left open by retiring GOP Rep. Jim Kolbe, worried that Graf may be too conservative to beat Democratic candidate Gabrielle Giffords, a former state legislator.
Each party has struggled this year with intra-party challenges. Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman lost the Democratic primary to anti-war candidate Ned Lamont, though the incumbent is still running as an independent. Michigan Rep. Joe Schwarz, a moderate Republican targeted by the anti-tax Club for Growth, was defeated.
Two other incumbents lost primaries, though both had grown unpopular for their personal behavior — Alaska GOP Gov. Frank Murkowski and Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia.
In Rhode Island, the importance of holding onto a GOP Senate seat brought Laura Bush and the GOP establishment to campaign for Chafee — even though he was the only Republican to vote against the resolution to use force against Iraq and he opposed the president’s tax cuts. Chafee did not even vote for Bush in 2004 — instead writing in the name of Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush.
Chafee said he didn’t expect the current president to campaign on his behalf. “His current approval ratings would not be helpful in this Democratic state,” Chafee said.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Chafee had 34,042 votes, or 54 percent, to Laffey’s 29,431 votes, or 46 percent.
Polls show Chafee will still face a tough contest against Democratic nominee Sheldon Whitehouse, a former attorney general. But if Chafee had lost, polls showed Whitehouse was almost assured a victory. Democrats hope to build on national dismay with Bush and Congress to capture majorities in Congress, and they need six Senate seats.
Chafee, 53, was appointed to the Senate in 1999 after his father, Sen. John Chafee, a governor and senator, died in office. It was the younger Chafee’s opposition to Bush’s tax cuts that spurred the anti-tax Club for Growth to back Laffey.
In New York, frontrunning Democrats swept aside primary challengers — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton trounced an anti-war candidate in her re-election bid, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer crushed his opposition for the Democratic nod for governor, and Andrew Cuomo easily won the party nomination for attorney general.
In Minnesota, state Rep. Keith Ellison won the Democratic nomination for an open House seat that could make him the first Muslim in Congress. In a reliably Democratic district that’s voted close to 70 percent for the Democrat for nearly 30 years, he’s likely the fall winner, too.
In Maryland, the race for the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat left open by Paul Sarbanes’ retirement was too close to call early Wednesday. Rep. Ben Cardin was leading Kweisi Mfume, former head of the NAACP, 45 percent to 38 percent — or 206,141 votes to 174,454 votes — with 87 percent of precincts reporting. The winner will face GOP Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who — if he wins again in November — would be the lone black Republican in the Senate.
Judges extended voting hours in Baltimore and nearby Montgomery County by one hour because of problems that delayed the opening of some polling places. Officials said some election judges did not show up on time and others had trouble getting into the facilities.
In New York, Clinton beat challenger Jonathan Tasini with more than 80 percent of the vote. She will face former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer.
Spitzer defeated Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi with more than 80 percent of the vote. He will face GOP candidate John Faso, a former legislative leader, in the fall.
Former federal Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo — son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo — defeated Mark Green, the former New York City Public Advocate, to win the Democratic nomination for attorney general.
And City Council member Yvette Clarke, who is black, prevailed in a racially charged congressional primary in the heart of Brooklyn, beating white City Councilman David Yassky in an area that has seen an influx of wealthy Manhattan residents and been gripped by debate over a development that would include a new arena for the NBA’s New Jersey Nets.