Brian Snyder  /  Reuters
Sen. Lincoln Chafee overcame a tough rival in the Rhode Island Republican primary on Tuesday to win the nomination. He'll face Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in the general election in November.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 9/13/2006 10:09:19 AM ET 2006-09-13T14:09:19

With a big boost from his party’s conservative leaders in Washington, Rhode Island’s Sen. Lincoln Chafee , the most liberal of the Senate’s 55 Republicans, fought off a challenge from self-styled populist Steve Laffey Tuesday to win his party’s nomination.

Chafee won about 54 percent of the vote, with a more than 4,000-vote margin of victory.

Turnout was extraordinarily large for a Rhode Island Republican primary. More than 63,000 votes were cast.

Laffey, in his concession speech, pledged to support Chafee in his battle against Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in the November election.

The race could well determine which party controls the Senate come next January.

In his victory speech Chafee thanked voters who said “yes to thoughtfulness, yes to honesty and yes to independence."

Laffey, who called for tax cuts, private school vouchers, and a crash program to develop solar and nuclear power, had argued that Chafee was dithering and ineffective. “He’s the most irrelevant senator we have,” Laffey said Sunday.

Laffey had hoped to build a populist-Reaganite coalition of voters fed up with both parties.

He predicted two days before the election that voters would “send a real message to the Washington elite who don’t know anything about Rhode Island.”

But some voters found Laffey too volatile and abrasive to be their Senate nominee

One independent voter in the town of Portsmouth, R.I., who asked not to be identified, said she voted for President Bush in 2004 and for Chafee on Tuesday.

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“Laffey is an embarrassment; he loses his temper,” she said after she cast her ballot Tuesday afternoon.

But she was discontented with Chafee as well. “Sometimes I think Chafee should be more Republican, more of a middle-of-the-road Republican than a liberal Republican.”

2006 key races

One possible lesson of Tuesday's vote in Rhode Island: may be that electorate is not in the deeply anti-incumbent mood that some pundits had claimed it was. Laffey ran as a populist who would defy special interests – such as the labor unions he clashed with as mayor of Cranston, R.I., -- and who would shake up partisan politics.

“Washington is a mess and its heading in the wrong direction,” Laffey said two days before the election. “Neither the national Democrats nor the national Republicans want to see me down there.”

Laffey also said, “I am a polarizing figure; Ronald Reagan was a polarizing figure.”

The Chafee-Bush relationship
Chafee has long been a thorn in the president’s side.

Last January, he was the sole Republican to vote against confirmation of Bush’s Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. In 2002 Chafee was the only GOP dissenter on the resolution authorizing Bush to use military force in Iraq. He also voted against Bush’s tax cuts and against banning partial-birth abortion.

In fact, Chafee’s voting record is decidedly more liberal than that of Democrats such as Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

Last week it was Chafee who blocked a Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote on Bush’s UN envoy, John Bolton, in order to express his protest of the Bush administration not mediating a settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

The Green GOP
Chafee is identified most as an environmentalist.

On his Toyota Prius hybrid car, Chafee displays stickers for the Appalachian Mountain Club, Trout Unlimited and the Block Island Conservancy.

Chafee and his father, the late John Chafee, are the only two Republicans to represent Rhode Island in the Senate since 1937.

In 1999, after John Chafee died in office, Rhode Island’s Republican governor appointed Lincoln Chafee to take his dad’s seat.

Despite Chafee’s anti-Bush record, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) spent lavishly in Rhode Island to defeat Laffey.

Republican leaders reasoned that in Rhode Island, which has three times as many registered Democrats as Republicans and which voted for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry with nearly 60 percent of the vote in 2004, only Chafee could hold the Senate seat.

An independent vote
About 365,000 independents -– five times the number of registered Republicans -– were eligible to vote in the GOP primary. Although exactly how many of them voted could not immediately be determined, it’s likely they played a significant role in Chafee’s victory.

Chafee frankly acknowledged his alienation from some GOP voters.

“I always thought the core Republican base was more likely to go with Laffey,” Chafee said Sunday.

Whitehouse said Monday that the lesson of the Chafee-Laffey brawl was “just how hard George Bush and Karl Rove are fighting to try to keep Linc Chafee in power. You know they don’t agree with him that much, but they’re about one thing and one thing only: the power of that vote that sets up the Senate under Republican leadership.”

The GOP now has 55 seats in the Senate; with Republican seats in jeopardy in Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and perhaps Tennessee as well, the significance of Chafee’s seat looms all the larger.

The bruising Laffey-Chafee brawl lasted right into Election Day itself.

On Tuesday morning, the NRSC’s “shark” ad, with footage of ravenous sharks circling in the water, was still running on Rhode Island TV stations. The ad accused Laffey of increasing taxes and spending as mayor of Cranston.

Also Tuesday morning, the Chafee campaign was running its ad on talk radio station WPRO featuring an endorsement of Chafee by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. McCain praised Chafee's thoughtfulness and said, “There have been some issues we haven't agreed on -- but that should be the nature of our party, a party of diverse views... sharing the common principles of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan."

Registered Republicans got a bucketful of mailers in recent days from NRSC and from the conservative Club for Growth, which backed Laffey.

The Club for Growth mailers accused Chafee of going on junkets to Brazil, Japan and Taiwan, and having a voting record like Democratic senators Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy.

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