All politics is national

All politics is national in the 2006 midterm elections, with both parties willing to put aside deeply held views over war, taxes and more in the surpassing struggle for control of the House and Senate.

Which explains why a conservative Republican Party rejoiced Wednesday at the primary victory of Rhode Island’s incorrigibly independent GOP Sen. Lincoln Chafee, and struggled with the defeat of the more moderate of two leading contenders for a House seat in Arizona.

Or why Democrats, whose leaders call daily for a timetable for a troop withdrawal from Iraq, were less than thrilled to find vigorously anti-war contenders winning nominations for House seats in New Hampshire and New York.

Nowhere was the phenomenon more obvious than Rhode Island, where Republicans placed an abundance of money and manpower into an effort to save their most liberal senator from defeat at the hands of a conservative primary challenger.

“We appreciate him. We know that he fits Rhode Island and he’s got a record that’s effective for the concerns of the people of Rhode Island,” Sen. Elizabeth Dole, head of the GOP senatorial campaign committee, said in praise of Chafee. The Rhode Islander opposes the war in Iraq and President Bush’s tax cuts, while supporting abortion rights.

In case anyone missed the point, she recast it in more overtly political terms. “This race would’ve immediately fallen into the hands of the Democrats if, in fact, Linc Chafee had lost this race” to Stephen Laffey.

Nationally, Democrats must gain six seats to capture control of the Senate.

“That would have been one down, right there,” Dole said. She felt strongly about it, having approved a barrage of television commercials that depicted Laffey as weak on immigration and prone to raising taxes.

Not that Rhode Island is safe for Chafee or the Republicans in the fall.

The state’s former attorney general, Sheldon Whitehouse, drew more votes in an essentially uncontested Democratic primary than Chafee and Laffey combined in their heated race, and the most recent pre-primary polls point toward a close race in November.

Chafee presented his credentials as he returned to campaigning.

“Rhode Islanders are going to know I’m independent, over and over again,” he said.

But Whitehouse had already served notice he would try to undercut the claim. Speaking to supporters Tuesday night, he noted that the first vote cast when the new Congress convenes will determine which party controls the Senate.

“I can tell you this: I will never cast that vote to empower the Bush agenda,” he said, a slap at Chafee.

Republican Party officials applied the same logic in Arizona, where Randy Graf ran on a tough-on-immigration platform for the GOP nomination in a district that runs to the Mexican border.

Strategists in Washington deemed him too conservative to hold the seat, and ran television commercials praising one of his rivals, Steven Huffman.

Graf won anyway, and immediately ran into difficulties. Rep. Jim Kolbe, the Republican who has held the seat for more than 20 years, issued a statement that said, “There are such profound and fundamental differences between his views and mine on several key issues that I would not be true to my own principles were I to endorse him now for the general election in November.”

Democrats must gain 15 seats to win control of the House, and like Republicans, looked past their policy views — then conceded they had run afoul of voters who preferred a nominee with a sharper position on the war.

Judith Aydelott was the early choice of the Democratic establishment to run in the Hudson Valley of New York. The voters weren’t as impressed, giving her little more than one-fourth of the votes cast.

Singer-songwriter John Hall carries the nomination into the fall campaign against Republican Sue Kelly.

For months, party officials had touted Jim Craig as the type of challenger who could make a New Hampshire congressional seat competitive. A leader in the New Hampshire legislature, he had the support of party officials in Washington as well as at the state capital in Concord, N.H.

He lost, in a rout, to Carol Shea-Porter, who raised a mere $40,000.

Of the war, she said recently, “We need to get out. We don’t have to tell insurgents over there the exact date, but we better tell ourselves what the date is and better start planning to leave.”

That sounds like something any one of dozens of congressional Democrats could say with pride.

Now, they’ll find out whether their calculation was correct — that it might have been preferable to mute opposition to the war in districts like the one around the New Hampshire seacoast or the military academy at West Point.


David Espo is The Associated Press’ chief congressional correspondent

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press