Chafee Gives the G.O.P. Many Reasons to Smile

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STEPHAN SAVOIA / AP

Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., before addressing supporters at his election night rally in Providence, R.I., Tuesday Sept. 12, 2006.

Republicans should be thrilled Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee won his primary Tuesday — and not just because he likely saved them a Senate seat. Certainly the most obvious implication from Chafee's victory in a very competitive primary against Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey is that the Republicans at least have a chance to hold on to one of the seats Democrats are trying to win this November. Chafee is running about even in the polls against the man he will face this fall, former Rhode Island attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse, but Laffey was so far behind that Republicans were ready to give up on the state if he had won the primary.

But there's another sign of good news in this race for the GOP. Laffey got more than a third of the money he raised in his campaign from a conservative, anti-tax group called the Club for Growth, which blasted Chafee for his liberal record and opposition to the Bush tax cuts. But Laffey ran less as the true conservative in the race and more as a populist, outsider candidate. In one of his ads, he declared “Washington is going in the wrong direction... and it's time for a change” and noted the high gas prices around the country in a spot that was very reminiscent of what Democratic congressional candidates are saying. If he had defeated Chafee, whose father held this Senate seat before he did, it would have been another sign that voters are in a very anti-incumbent mood, as polls have indicated, which would primarily hurt the G.O.P. as the party in power.

The Chafee win also guarantees an even tighter campaign in the fall, which won't help Democrats. Needing to win six seats to capture the Senate, Democrats were rooting for Laffey, which would have meant they could save and concentrate their campaign funds on key races in Tennessee, Virginia and Ohio. Now, Democrats will have to work aggressively and spend heavily to defeat Chafee, who has such a liberal record on issues like the environment that he’s almost assured of wooing some Democratic voters.

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