Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Lieberman and Chafee: Are Their Fates Tied?

OK, well that's just a silly headline - not really any substance to it. But they are interesting parallells, aren't they? Each disliked by his party's base, each facing a primary from a 'true-believer,' and each considering a bid as an Independent to save him from losing a primary.

Well, the Chafee 'shoe' has dropped - he's filed for re-election as a Republican:

PAC calls for Laffey withdrawal; Sen. Chafee files as Republican
By Aaron Blake

The Republican Main Street Partnership PAC called yesterday for Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee’s primary challenger to drop out of the Rhode Island Senate race to help keep a Republican majority in the Senate. The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and Chafee’s campaign echoed the call.

The centrist Republican PAC’s call for Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey to withdraw came the same day as a new Brown University poll reasserted that the more-conservative Laffey would face a much harder race than Chafee in defeating the Democratic candidate, Sheldon Whitehouse.

Chafee’s campaign manager, Ian Lang, also ended speculation about his boss’s status by revealing that the campaign had filed papers for Chafee to run as a Republican. There had been talk that Laffey’s run might push Chafee into an independent candidacy.

The polls show Republicans have reason to be concerned about a Laffey nomination. In the Brown poll, Whitehouse leads Chafee 38-37, which is within the margin of error, but leads Laffey much more convincingly, 55-25. The poll results are similar to the findings of a mid-June Rasmussen poll, which had Chafee ahead of Whitehouse 44-42 and Laffey trailing the Democrat 60-25.

Chafee faces an uphill battle - in both the primary and the general election. While his family name and legacy is a big help in Rhode Island, any poll which shows an incumbent drawing just 37 percent support should be a real worry. Chafee may gambling that a win over Laffey would be a big shot of momentum - perhaps true - that would give him the boost he needs to get past Whitehouse, as well.

In other New England incumbent-threatened-in-primary-considering-Independent-bid news, Dick Morris elaborates on why Lieberman needs to do what Chafee wouldn't:

...As my populist and liberal friend Bill Curry discovered when he defeated the Democratic Party establishment’s candidate for governor, Rep. John Larson, in the primary of 1994, primaries in Connecticut are notoriously polarized. The right dominates the GOP nominating process just as surely as the left controls that of the Democrats. This is no place for a centrist to thrive.

If Lieberman simply skips the primary and runs as an independent, forcing a three-way race, he will win overwhelmingly. The larger Connecticut electorate adores him and will happily desert either party to vote for his reelection.

...Lieberman’s supporters argue that if he loses the primary he can always then run as an independent. Technically that is not true. He would have to file his nominating petitions as an independent before the primary.

But politically it is a failed choice as well. If Lieberman loses the primary, the defeat will empower Lamont and make him a viable candidate in November. Like a parasite, he will thrive on the nutrients in the senator’s blood and use them to animate his candidacy. But if Lieberman withdraws from the primary (even if his name has to remain on the ballot), he denies Lamont that victory. Without it, the insurgent can never amass the resources and credibility he would need to run and win in November.

Lieberman speaks of his loyalty to the Democratic Party. Obviously, if he wins as an independent, he will continue to vote with his party in the Senate and will continue to call himself a Democrat. But this misguided party loyalty may help to elect Republican candidate Alan Schlesinger. If Lieberman is so weakened by a primary defeat that he fades as a front-runner in the general election, we will see a three-way race that anyone can win.

Morris makes a good case on a couple of points. But I'm skeptical that Lieberman can return to DC as a Democrat if he wins as an Independent. Democratic Senators are already choosing sides between him and Lamont, and some (like Russ Feingold) won't welcome Lieberman back to the caucus with open arms. Plus, those dejected Lamont supporters in Connecticut - the core of the Democratic party - will hate Lieberman forever if the Morris scenario plays out. Can Lieberman ever really go back to them?

If Lieberman is unable to think about caucusing with Republicans, I wonder if he won't foreclose that as a possibility by staying in the Democratic primary and abiding by the results.

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