Requiem For Moderate Republicans?

Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., prepares for a televised debate with Democratic challenger Sheldon Whitehouse Monday, Oct. 30, 2006, in Cranston, R.I. (AP Photo/Stew Milne)
By's Amy Sara Clark.

The war in Iraq has cost Sen. Lincoln Chafee dearly — twice.

First, the Rhode Island Republican infuriated his party's conservative base by voting against the war. This led to a bitter primary fight against Stephen Laffey, the conservative mayor of Cranston. The primary forced Chafee to trumpet his Republican credentials in what is perhaps the bluest of blue states. It also cost him badly needed campaign cash and resources.

Now, in the general election, the Iraq war is slamming Chafee again.

Democratic challenger Sheldon Whitehouse has managed to effectively harness anti-war sentiment against Chafee despite a painful irony: Chafee opposed it.

Whitehouse has delivered one major message, and he's stuck to it for dear life: Chafee's voting record doesn't matter because the most important vote he'll cast will help to decide which party controls the Senate.

"Chafee's first vote will be for a Republican Congress," one ad runs. "Bush needs Chafee in the Senate. Doesn't that tell us everything we need to know?"

"He's had a consistent theme and it's a simple theme: 'I'm a Democrat and it's a time for change,'" says Wendy Schiller, who teaches political science at Brown University in Providence. "He's been doing it since June. Candidates usually shift messages, but he hasn't and it's worked for him."

It sure has.

With Rhode Island's approval rating for Mr. Bush hovering around 22 percent — the lowest of any state — Whitehouse's campaign has been surging ahead. Less than a week before the election, some polls show Whitehouse with a double-digit lead. A new Reuters/Zogby poll, for example, shows Whitehouse with a comfortable 53-39 percent lead over Chafee.

A Dying Breed?

A Chafee loss could sound the death knell for an increasingly rare creature: the moderate Republican.

Chafee has a well-deserved reputation for being most liberal Republican in the Senate. Not only was he the only GOP senator to oppose the war, he also opposed President Bush's tax cuts, supports abortion rights and favors the legalization of gay marriage. He didn't even vote for Mr. Bush, casting his ballot instead for the president's father.

In fact, Chafee's platform is so similar to Whitehouse's that Laffey ran an ad in the primary entitled "Two peas in a pod."

"Lincoln Chafee's major offense is that he has an 'R' next to his name. That's about it, but it may be enough to beat him," says Larry Sabato, who directs University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

It's not just Chafee. Moderate Republicans are struggling across the country, especially in the Northeast: Longtime Republican House moderates Chris Shays, Nancy Johnson and Rob Simmons are facing tough challengers in Connecticut; five-term Republican Rep. Sue Kelly is facing a tough challenge from Democrat John Hall in New York; and Democrats have been waging a tight race against moderate GOP Rep. Curt Weldon in Pennsylvania, to name just a few.

The era of the so-called Rockefeller Republican could be coming to a close, says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "There was a time when you could look all up and down the East Coast — Jacob Javits in New York, Mack Mathias in Maryland — and see a variety of moderate and even liberal Republicans. That is a disappearing breed."