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Survival Is No Cakewalk for Moderates

Despite win by Chafee in Rhode Island, centrists struggled in several other races. An unusual number of incumbents faced tough challenges.

September 14, 2006|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The latest nationwide round of primaries demonstrated the persistence -- and limits -- of the ideological challenge faced by moderates in both parties during an age of intense political polarization.

In Rhode Island, moderate Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee defeated a challenge Tuesday from a much more conservative opponent -- a result that cheered GOP centrists, who have seen their influence wane within their party.

"We are very much alive, very much kicking and very much winning," said Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group of GOP centrists that backed Chafee.

But elsewhere, centrists struggled in several of Tuesday's contests. Candidates identified with their party's ideological vanguard won a closely watched Republican House primary in Arizona and a Democratic House primary in New Hampshire. In Maryland, Democratic Rep. Albert R. Wynn held a narrow lead pending a final tally of uncounted ballots against a liberal challenger who denounced his vote for the Iraq war.

"Despite Chafee's success ... the trend toward increasing polarization continues," said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. "That doesn't mean moderates can't survive -- but it's difficult."

Chafee survived not because of support from Republicans, but because he attracted a surge of independent voters to participate in the primary.

The week's flurry of closely contested races followed a nominating season in which an unusual number of incumbents confronted serious challenges -- a trend capped last month by the primary defeats of Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman in Connecticut and another moderate, Republican Rep. Joe Schwarz of Michigan.

Independent political analyst Rhodes Cook, in the new issue of his monthly newsletter, calculated that even before Tuesday's results, 23 House incumbents and three senators -- Lieberman and Republicans Mike DeWine of Ohio and Conrad Burns of Montana -- were held to 75% of the vote or less against primary challengers. Those are results that, in Cook's view, represent more than nuisance challenges to incumbents.

On Tuesday, Chafee was held below that threshold, winning 54% of the vote. And Wynn, even if he maintains his narrow advantage over liberal activist Donna Edwards in the Maryland House race, may end up with less than 50% of the vote.

"The incumbents are not getting the deference in their party in many cases that they might have gotten in the past," Cook said.

Two common threads run through many of the races. One is that more Republicans are facing serious challenges than Democrats. Among the four senators who have received less than 75% of the vote in primaries this year, the only Democrat was Lieberman. Of the 23 House members who did not crack the 75% level before Tuesday, 15 were Republicans, Cook said.

The other trend crosses party lines. A succession of relatively centrist Democrats and Republicans have faced tough contests against more ideological opponents who have questioned the loyalty of the incumbents to their party and its ideological principles.

That was the centerpiece of Ned Lamont's victory against Lieberman, as well as sustained, but ultimately unsuccessful, primary challenges to Democratic Reps. Henry Cuellar of Texas and, in California, Jane Harman of Venice.

On Tuesday in New Hampshire, Carol Shea-Porter, an antiwar activist, upset a state legislator backed by most of the party establishment for the Democratic nomination to oppose Rep. Jeb Bradley (R-N.H.) in November.

In Maryland, opposition to the Iraq war fueled Edwards' bid in her race against Wynn. "Go-along, get-along, Republican-lite policies are not acceptable," she said.

Likewise, the charge of cooperating too much with Democrats surfaced in several Republican primary challenges against incumbents.

Schwarz, a first-term moderate, was ousted in last month's Michigan primary by conservative Tim Walberg.

And Republican Reps. Chris Cannon of Utah and Ralph Regula of Ohio faced credible primary challenges earlier this year from conservatives.

Several of the primaries for open House seats have turned on similar ideological contrasts.

In Arizona on Tuesday, Randy Graf, a staunch conservative who stressed his opposition to illegal immigration, defeated two moderates for the GOP nomination to succeed Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe, another moderate. Republican fears that Graf may not be able to hold the closely balanced district were instantly fanned Wednesday when Kolbe announced he would not endorse the nominee because of their "profound and fundamental differences."

The race between Chafee, the son of the late GOP Sen. John Chafee, and Steve Laffey, the mayor of Cranston, was the marquee match-up this year between the conservative and moderate wings in the GOP.

Laffey ran as much as a populist and reformer as a conservative, but his campaign attracted extensive support from the Club for Growth, a conservative group that promotes antitax candidates.

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