CAN JIM LANGEVIN not go for it?
The siren song of trying to take out US Senator Lincoln Chafee, with the prospect of significantly elevating himself and boosting the fortunes of Senate Democrats, seems likely to prove irresistible for Rhode Islandís junior congressman. Already, the Democratic establishment is coalescing behind Langevin, and two fundraisers, an event next Wednesday, February 16, at the Phoenix Park Hotel in Washington, DC, and a February 28 gathering at the Rhode Island Convention Center, are each targeting a six-figure haul. Although Langevin remains officially undecided ó spokesman Michael Guilfoyle says the three-term congressman will unveil his choice by April 1 ó all indications suggest he will emerge as a formidable Democratic candidate.
As something of a nominal Republican, Chafee has cut an unusual path since inheriting the Senate seat long held by his father, John H. Chafee, after the icon of Republican moderation died in 1999. The scion of one of the stateís "Five Families" gets respect from many Rhode Islanders for his candor and independence, signified most clearly by how he was the only Senate Republican to vote against the war in Iraq, yet he also infuriates conservatives with his mushy support for the GOP. With Senate Democrats already stepping up efforts to challenge President Bush, replacing Chafee with a Democrat has become a national priority for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Campaign (DSCC) in 2006. And for someone like Langevin, it hardly hurts that J.B. Poersch, a longtime aide to US Senator Jack Reed, recently assumed the reins at the DSCC.
In Rhode Island, the level of interest in the Senate race can be seen by how Secretary of State Matthew A. Brown, whose intention to run had been palpable (see "Brown edges steadily closer to Senate run," News, This just in, January 21), unveiled his campaign with an e-mailed news release and a series of interviews on Thursday, February 3 ó quite an early point in the 2006 campaign. Former attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse is another possible candidate, but he has indicated that he wonít seek the Senate seat if Langevin does.
Although Chafee will never be confused with a zealous conservative like Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Democrats can be counted on to link Rhode Islandís junior senator, one of a dwindling band of Senate moderates, with the Bush administrationís most egregious policies. As Bill Lynch, chairman of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, puts it, "Clearly, when you look at the national agenda of the two parties, Senator Chafee can try to hide the fact that he is a Republican when he comes back to Rhode Island, but he is a vote more often than not for the Washington party, which is out of step with working people here in Rhode Island."
A Democratic primary notwithstanding, Langevin is perceived by insiders as the candidate best equipped to challenge Chafee in 2006, and itís not hard to see why. After being partially paralyzed as a teenager by an accidental shooting, Langevin, who uses a motorized wheelchair, has demonstrated his pluck and determination by successively winning office as a state representative, Rhode Island secretary of state, and a congressman. Like Chafee, heís a well-regarded native son of Warwick ó where almost as many votes were cast in the 2000 Senate contest as in Providence. If heís something of a rare bird ó a Democrat from a heavily Democratic state who (unlike Chafee) opposes abortion rights ó he has gained attention by supporting stem cell research and shined in the national television spotlight while introducing Ron Reagan Jr. during the Democratic National Convention in Boston last summer.
Some critics reflexively dismiss Chafee as something of a lightweight, and he did little to help himself last year by announcing and then repeatedly commenting on his decision not to vote for President Bush, writing in instead the presidentís father, George H.W. Bush. As the Providence Journal reported last month, a survey paid for by the DSCC, conducted by Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, found that 52 percent of respondents favored Langevin, compared to 32 percent for Chafee, with 17 percent undecided. Still, Chafee will probably be tougher to beat than many people assume, for a variety of reasons, but more about this later.
Chafee, who has periodically flirted in recent years with the notion of becoming a Democrat, tells the Phoenix that he has put such dalliances in the past. Some have seen the prospect of Chafee becoming an independent, if Cranston Mayor Stephen P. Laffey was to challenge him in a Republican primary, for example, as a potentially useful strategy. Asked if he would switch parties or become an independent if his political career depended on it, Chafee says, however, "No, Iíve made my decision." Asked whether he was committed to remaining a Republican, he says, "Yes."
Put simply, the choice facing Langevin is whether to maintain his House seat ó probably for as long as he likes ó or grabbing for the brass ring of the Senate, possibly joining the rarefied ranks of such esteemed Rhode Island solons as John Pastore, Claiborne Pell, John Chafee, and Jack Reed. The only problem, of course, is how losing a battle for the Senate would constitute a huge political setback for Langevin. That being the case, the time is basically now or never. Whoever wins Rhode Islandís US Senate election in 2006 will probably hold the seat for decades to come.page 1 page 2 page 3
Issue Date: February 11 - 17, 2005
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