- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 17, 2006

Senate Democrats last week lost a key chance in their battle to retake the Senate, when top Republicans helped one of their most liberal members, Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, defeat a more conservative challenger who both sides thought would lose to Democrats in November.

“Republicans are breathing a sigh of relief,” Republican pollster Scott Reed said. “And the Democrats’ momentum has been halted. … This just would have made them one step closer.”

Democrats have to gain six seats in order to retake the Senate. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said last year that a “miracle” would be needed for them to do so.

Senate Democrats strongly disagree that Mr. Chafee’s win was a setback for them. They argue that they can still win the seat because Mr. Chafee was weakened by the bitter primary and polls show a tight race between him and Democratic nominee Sheldon Whitehouse, a former state attorney general.

But the hill is now a bit steeper for Democrats than it would have been had the more conservative Stephen Laffey won the Republican primary in the Democratic state.

To gain a majority, Democrats would have to win Mr. Chafee’s seat, as well as four vulnerable Republican seats in Missouri, Montana, Ohio and Pennsylvania, said Jennifer Duffy, editor and political analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Then, they would have to pick up a sixth seat from among three slightly less vulnerable Republican seats in Arizona, Tennessee and Virginia, she said. And they would have to do all of this without losing any of their current seats.

In addition, Democrats are trying to deal with reports that Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, is the subject of a federal investigation. The Star Ledger reported on Sept. 8 that the federal government is investigating a rental deal between Mr. Menendez and a nonprofit group in the state that received millions in federal funds. A Republican poll taken last weekend showed Republican challenger Tom Kean Jr. with a four-point lead.

Meanwhile, last week’s Rhode Island primary was a focus for both parties because polls showed Mr. Laffey likely would lose to Mr. Whitehouse, giving Democrats a victory in the state. National Republicans gave ample money, time and resources to Mr. Chafee to ensure that didn’t happen.

“It makes the math a lot harder for [Democrats],” Dan Ronayne, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said of the outcome. He noted that Democrats were so intent on a Laffey win that they spent $26,000 making phone calls against Mr. Chafee leading up to the race, according to a Federal Election Commission filing by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).

But the DSCC is now wholly focused on the general election.

It says Mr. Chafee will have a difficult time trying to woo left-leaning voters after top Republicans such as first lady Laura Bush traveled to Rhode Island to campaign for him.

“Chafee’s going to have a harder time shifting to a general election after using page after page of the Republican playbook in the primary,” DSCC spokesman Phil Singer said.

In a strategy memo the day after the primary, DSCC Chairman Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York noted that Mr. Whitehouse got roughly the same number of votes as both the Republican candidates combined.

He said the primary showed that “candidates who were perceived as the most anti-Bush won — an ominous sign for the GOP and a good sign for Democrats.”

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