In striking contrast to the Democratic party's abandonment of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman for being too conservative, the Rhode Island primary saw the major campaign institutions of the GOP rally behind maverick Liberal Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee to push him to a strong 54% to 45% victory over conservative challenger Stephen Laffey on Tuesday.
Chafee's moderate-to-liberal positions on issues like abortion and the war in Iraq had alienated a lot of religious and hawkish Republicans who encouraged and supported the pro-life and pro-war Laffey in his primary challenge. Laffey had raised a lot of money and up until the last few weeks most of the polls had shown him neck and neck or even leading Chafee.
Then in the final weeks of the campaign the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee really came through for Chafee with direct donations and ad campaign sponsorships totalling more than $1.2 million, plus additional staff and expertise to turn out independent voters to vote in the Republican primary and give Chafee the win.
Cynics are pointing out that Chafee is the incumbent and they may have only supported him because they thought he would run more effectively against moderate Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, but there may be more significance to this development. It may be a reminder of who really controls the GOP and a sign of things to come.
The Republican National Committee is run by Ken Mehlman who is relatively politically moderate and widely rumored to be gay. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is headed by Elizabeth Dole whose voting record in the Senate is fiscally conservative but socially fairly moderate. Rep. Tom Reynolds, who heads the National Republican Congressional Committee, has a more moderate voting record than either of them.
Obviously none of these party leaders is as liberal as Chafee, but they certainly represent the more traditional establishment of the party. They aren't Neocons or Theocons, they're old-fashioned fiscally conservative and socially moderate Republicans, and it appears that they are eager to support moderates and liberals over extreme conservatives in 2006, and quite possibly in 2008 as well – which argues very hopefully for the aspirations of presidential contenders like Rudy Giuliani and John McCain.
Not surprisingly, the power brokers of the extreme right such as the Club for Growth are grinding their teeth over the choice to back Chafee against Laffey. Club for Growth President Pat Toomey commented "Washington-based Republicans' elevation of incumbency protection over principle is disgusting rank-and-file GOP members." Which begs the question – if it's so disgusting, why did they turn out to vote Chafee an almost 10 point margin of victory over Laffey?
This may not yet be a full-scale split in the GOP, but it's a sign of the growing division between the party establishment and the radicals who want to change the agenda and move the party towards the far right. The Chafee victory is a sign that the radicals aren't having the same kind of success which the Ned Lamont victory in Connecticut suggests that Democrat extremists are having in their party.