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October 18, 2006

Lessons from New England


While heated campaigns rage across the country as we near Election Day, little attention is being paid to the two states that only weeks ago were thought to be the most exciting and potentially revealing. Political strategists from across the spectrum have long known that the Senate races in Connecticut and Rhode Island held valuable lessons for both political parties.


Today, however, the two races have taken a major fall on this election season’s echelon of significance, and are being increasingly shunned by leaders of both Republican and Democratic Party structures. Yet it is most certainly not the case that they ceased assigning importance to the races because they haven’t learned anything. On the contrary, the issue here is that they’ve learned painful, tough lessons and now just don’t want to talk about it anymore.


The challenges the two parties tackled in New England are at the same time quite similar yet considerably different. Both the Republicans and Democrats were faced with a difficult balancing act that entailed standing by their respective incumbents – each a political moderate in relative terms – on the one hand, and appeasing ideological purists on the other. With time, each institution had to make a decision; and as it turns out, they both made the wrong choice.


In Connecticut, Democrats had two men to choose from for Senator Joe Lieberman’s seat. One was Joe Lieberman himself, a 17-year veteran of the Senate and the same man who would have become the Democratic Vice President of the United States had 269 Florida voters cast their ballots for Al Gore instead of President Bush in 2000. The solidly liberal Lieberman toes the party line on virtually all issues, with the exception of his support for the Iraq War.


The Democrats’ second choice was Ned Lamont, who was even more liberal than Lieberman, most notably on the Iraq War. In the primary, Democrats chose the fringe candidate, because apparently Lieberman’s incumbency, experience and respectability on both sides of the aisle are not sufficient to overcome the single issue – with “single” used in the most literal sense – on which he disagrees with the Connecticut Left.


The Republicans also had a choice in Rhode Island, although one with notable differences from the Connecticut dilemma. The Republican leadership could either back Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey, a Republican both on paper and in ideology, or they could throw their support behind Senator Lincoln Chafee, an incumbent who had used his years in the Senate to oppose his party on abortion, taxes, gay marriage and even a Supreme Court confirmation.


Chafee had also openly refused to vote for President Bush in 2004, writing in Bush’s father’s name. As an aside, Chafee’s understanding of Republican principles revolves around “environmental protection” and “a willingness to use the tools of government to help the poor and the vulnerable.”


Despite the fact that both Laffey and Chafee trailed Democratic candidate Sheldon Whitehouse in the polls (though admittedly, Chafee was performing better), the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) threw their weight behind Chafee, lambasting Laffey for being, um, Republican. It took $1.2 million from the NRSC alone and the Republican establishment’s famed get-out-the-vote effort to earn Chafee a victory in the primary.


So there we have it. The Democratic people and leadership united in attempting to replace a perfectly liberal, pro-choice, pro-tax incumbent Lieberman with an even more liberal candidate. Faced with a similar choice, the Republican establishment did the exact opposite, supporting an incumbent who ideologically shares nothing important with the party, while launching endless attacks on his opponent, an average conservative. Now both Lamont and Chafee are down significantly in the polls, and both parties are deeply regretting their choices.


The Democrats have been shocked to discover that they have reached the end of their journey leftward. Though the rejection of Howard Dean by Democrats in 2004 should have sufficed, it took a Connecticut Senate race to show that if they go too far to the fringe, even in their own territory, they are going to lose. With his long-time Senate colleagues almost unanimously endorsing his opponent, it will certainly be interesting to see whether Lieberman decides to make them pay upon returning for another six-year term in the Senate.


On its end, the Republican establishment is in much deeper trouble in Rhode Island (after all, at least the Democrats are getting a liberal out of Connecticut). By dumping its resources in the Chafee-Laffey primary, not only did it lose money that could have been well spent on the current nail biters in Tennessee or Missouri, but it also lost the respect of tens, or perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Republicans across the country for the disproportionate value it places on incumbency.


Because the temptation of extremism is more powerful and prevalent than that of centrism, it would appear that Democrats are more likely to repeat their mistake in the future. Yet Connecticut has provided them with a fairly tangible lesson this year, and wisdom dictates that they do not ignore it.


In turn, one would imagine that Rhode Island will serve as a message to the Republican establishment that although pure conservatism is not required, a basic conservative ideological foundation is indeed necessary for the Grand Old Party to function as a united front in elections yet to come.

© 2006 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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