With Chafee's win in Rhode Island, the Democrats' odds get longer

With the help of the GOP, the Senate's most liberal Republican survives a challenge from the right.

Published September 13, 2006 3:02AM (EDT)

The Democrats need to pick up six seats in the Senate to take control from the Republicans in November. With Lincoln Chafee's victory in the Rhode Island Republican primary Tuesday, their job just got a little harder.

Although late polling showed the race to be closer, Chafee defeated Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey by a relatively comfortable, 54-46 percent margin. Credit the GOP's highly touted 72-hour get-out-the-vote machine: More than 60,000 Republicans voted in the primary, more than twice as many as in the Republican primary four years ago.

Why did the GOP go all-out for the Senate's most liberal Republican, a man who didn't even vote for George W. Bush in 2004? Because the alternative was Laffey, a darling of the conservative Club for Growth who would have had absolutely no chance of winning a general election in a state where Bush's approval ratings currently sit at a national low of 22 percent. Washington Republicans considered a Laffey run against Democratic nominee Sheldon Whitehouse so hopeless that they said they would abandon the race to the Democrats if Chafee didn't win in the primary.

But Chafee did win, and that means the Democrats will have a race rather than a walk in Rhode Island this year. The good news for Chafee? The support from Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman and other national Republicans has kept him alive to fight another day. The bad news? He knows, as he told the New York Times the other day, that all that GOP help may come back to haunt him in November. "Its a double-edged sword because I need Democratic-leaning unaffiliated voters," Chafee told the Times. "This is a very Democratic state."

Will it be Democratic enough to elect a Democrat in November? The most recent polling shows Whitehouse with a slim lead over Chafee. If he can hold it, Democratic control of the Senate remains at least a possibility. If he can't, it's hard to do the electoral math in such a way that gets Democrats the six seats they need in November.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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2006 Elections Sheldon Whitehouse War Room