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Midterm Election Campaigns Heat-up After Tuesday Primaries

September 13, 2006 at 6:15 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: The battle for control of the House and the Senate grew even more pitched yesterday, as voters went to the polls in nine states and the District of Columbia. Big names, like Hillary Clinton in New York, won easy re-nomination.

But the outcomes of two races — one in Rhode Island, and one in Arizona — were emblematic of the fall general election battles to come. Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee, a liberal Republican, survived a vigorous challenge from Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey, a conservative.

Here is what Chafee had to say at his victory celebration last night.

SEN. LINCOLN CHAFEE (R), Rhode Island: When I ran for the Senate in 2000, I promised you that I would always be honest, that I would always have the guts to take the hard votes, and that I would strive to work constructively with everyone in Washington. I believe I have kept these promises.

GWEN IFILL: Here to analyze the primary results is John Mercurio, senior editor of Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics.

So, John, Lincoln Chafee didn’t even vote for the president of his own party…

JOHN MERCURIO, Senior Editor, The Hotline: Right.

GWEN IFILL: … George W. Bush. He’s voted against many of the things that the president wanted. Yet, Republicans were working very hard to make sure he got reelected. And it worked.

JOHN MERCURIO: Well, some Republicans were.

But, of course, Lincoln Chafee didn’t do this all by himself. He had strong support yesterday from the Republican National Committee, from the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, which is extremely ironic, as you just said, because he’s been campaigning, and he won, by running against the Republican Party, by — the national Republican Party, running against the Bush White House, voting against most of the Bush White House’s top priorities, both domestic and international.

I think the party, though — the national party — did a lot of things to help him win. Most importantly, I think people are looking at the dramatic increase in turnout that was generated by the Republican National Committee’s — quote, unquote — “72-hour program.” It’s a highly respected get-out-the-vote program that — that Republicans used in 2004 for President Bush in states like Ohio, and they were using this year in Rhode Island.

GWEN IFILL: But were there — but Rhode Island is a reliably blue state, as they say. Were there enough — obviously, there were enough — there were enough Republicans that they could turn out people who weren’t going to show up. Was it because Laffey, Steve Laffey, was someone who they considered to be too conservative?

JOHN MERCURIO: I think what they did, what the — what the national party did over the past couple of days, they saw internal polling showing that Laffey actually had inched ahead of Senator Chafee.

They started running some particularly negative ads against Steve Laffey. And those appeared to have worked. Those were run against Senator Chafee’s wishes. But the national party, I think, both during the primary and during this general election, are going to be coming in with a heavily negative influence.

Republicans try to hold on to seat

GWEN IFILL: Now, there is a Democrat, Sheldon Whitehouse, who is gearing up for this fall campaign. Are the Republicans prepared to spend as much on behalf of Chafee to defeat this Democrat and hold on to this Republican seat?

JOHN MERCURIO: Well, absolutely. And that's the key issue.

If Laffey had won, if the conservative had -- had beaten Chafee, Republicans basically said publicly that they were going to abandon this race. As much as $3 million to $4 million that -- that the Republican would have needed would not be there.

But, because Chafee won, he's essentially tied at this point or leading Sheldon Whitehouse by a few points in polling. This is a race that both parties are going to be watching closely in November. And this is a race that Democrats need in order to realistically hope to take back the Senate.

GWEN IFILL: So, they -- it is generally agreed by Democrats and Republicans that this is a -- this race, or the outcome of this race, has a lot to do with whether the Senate stays in Republican hands?

JOHN MERCURIO: There is no realistic road map that Democrats can point to that does not include a pick-up in Rhode Island.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let's talk about the House, which is far more within grasp.

The Arizona 8th District turned out to be kind of the -- the -- the companion -- the House companion piece to the Senate race in Rhode Island, as an example of something which both parties thought they had to win.

JOHN MERCURIO: Yes.

I mean, in Rhode Island, you saw Republicans take a gamble, and it paid off. You saw Republicans in Arizona take a gamble. That didn't pay off. They got strongly behind Steve Huffman, a moderate who had supported and worked for the retiring Congressman Jim Kolbe.

He trailed considerably -- considerably behind former State Rep. Randy Graf, who ran a very sort of conservative campaign, grassroots campaign. He advocates a much more hard-line conservative position on the issue of immigration reform. Graf beat Huffman. Graf beat the moderate.

And, now, ironically, President Bush, going into the last two years of his administration, if he wants to accomplish one of his key priorities, which is immigration reform, he's going to have more luck doing so with the Democrat, Gabrielle Giffords, who was nominated, winning this district than Randy Graf -- Randy Graf, much more hard-line, much more conservative, more in the line of Judiciary Chairman Sensenbrenner and a lot of the House conservatives who disagree with the president on immigration.

A tough race

GWEN IFILL: Well, then, are people looking at the outcome of this race, where the conservative hard-liner, build-a-fence guy, Randy Graf, won, and saying, all right, this is an example of what we should be taking to other districts, to other campaigns around the country, that maybe the president's immigration stance is wrong?

JOHN MERCURIO: I think that's probably true.

I think, to some extent, you see conservatives motivated by Graf's victory. But I think Republicans in Washington extremely nervous that not just will this put the district at -- in jeopardy, but also gives Democrats more of a rallying cry on a national level by making immigration reform sort of a -- a national campaign issue.

GWEN IFILL: People were saying in Washington last week that immigration reform was dead. Does this revive it?

JOHN MERCURIO: I don't think it revives it on a national level. I think you're seeing in sort of, you know, regions of the country -- this is a district, this Arizona -- this Arizona district we're talking about is along the southern border of Arizona.

It's along the Mexican border. It's one of the most porous entry points for illegal immigrants in the country. So, I think, if it wasn't an issue in a district like Arizona's 8th District, then, it wouldn't be an issue anywhere. But I think you're seeing it sort of in pockets, this -- parts of this -- Southern California, also, a top issue, and in some other sort of Colorado and Iowa races.

GWEN IFILL: In the way that the national Democrat -- Republicans were not prepared to support the conservative Republican in -- in Rhode Island, are they prepared now to support the Republican, with their money, with their support, the Republican nominee in Arizona?

JOHN MERCURIO: Probably more so. Randy Graf, the Republican nominee, actually comes to Washington tomorrow. He's going to be meeting with the House Republican leadership. They're going to be handing him a check.

I think they're going to be watching the polls over the next couple of weeks, like everybody is, to see how that race pans out. Currently, internal polling shows that he trails behind the Democratic nominee, Gabrielle Giffords, by a significant margin.

But this is a district that President Bush won twice, albeit by narrow margins, but that -- I think Republicans are willing to -- to give him a chance to see how the race pans out. If -- if it ends up being relatively close, I think, by late October, or by mid-October, sure, they will -- they will invest in this race.

Campaign finance

GWEN IFILL: And, finally, are Republicans and Democrats, are the -- the campaign committees, prepared to spend whatever it takes to win in November?

JOHN MERCURIO: Absolutely.

I mean, I think both the Republican and the Democratic campaign committees in both houses and the independent expenditure groups that we're watching put their -- put these races -- put the races together. It's a midterm election. They never raise as much money. They never spend as much money as they do during a presidential campaign. But there will be more than -- more than -- more than any other sort of midterm campaign spent before, absolutely.

GWEN IFILL: And we will be watching. John Mercurio of The Hotline, thank you very much.

JOHN MERCURIO: Thank you.