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A Note From Rhode Island


by Ted WidmerYesterday, in one of the most closely watched Senate races in the country, moderate Republican Lincoln Chafee defeated a robust challenge from a right-wing conservative, Stephen Laffey. The Boston Globe said Chafee "eked out" a narrow victory, but in fact he won by a comfortable 54-46 margin, an impressive victory after many commentators and polls had predicted his defeat. He now faces a hard challenge in the general election from a former state attorney general, Sheldon Whitehouse, who faced little opposition winning the Democratic nomination yesterday.

The results confirm Rhode Island as a bastion of free thinking (the State House dome undergirds a huge bronze sculpture of "The Independent Man") and a place that has always taken the Senate very seriously. In fact, given its Lilliputian size (24 by 48 miles), its rather amazing Rhode Island has senators at all. Since the Constitutional Convention of 1787, boycotted by Rhode Island, Rhode Islanders have enjoyed a bizarre relationship to the federal government. We love to hate it, and boast more than our fair share of left and right wing quacks (and the talk radio culture that feeds them). But ultimately we understand that we have an outsize voice in the federal system, and are proud of our special relationship to it--including robust support for the U.S. military (the Navy has been a presence here since the American Revolution).

If yesterday's verdict is an affirmation that old-school moderate Republicanism is not entirely dead, it also carries an ominous message for the Bush team. In the Republican primary, both candidates ran against Bush. Chafee touted his independence from the White House, his interest in the environment, and the fact that wrote in a ballot for President Bush's father in the last election. More interestingly, Laffey attacked Chafee precisely for the fact that he was endorsed by the Bush/Cheney team. In other words, the most right-wing candidate around was attacking the president and using what sounded like left-wing invective on Iraq, including a call for Rumsfeld's resignation. The volcanic anger that has driven conservative politics since Barry Goldwater now appears to be feeding on itself.

In the short term, Chafee's nomination increases the chances that the GOP will hold the Senate (Laffey certainly would have lost the general election). But the way that candidates are talking about President Bush, on all sides of the spectrum, does not bode well for a Republican victory in the November elections.

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