Deal Not Sparking Primaries — Yet

Posted May 24, 2005 at 6:38pm

Monday night’s compromise on judicial nominations produced predictable thunder on the right, with conservative lawmakers and interest groups accusing the seven Republican Senators who helped craft the deal of caving in to Democrats and liberals.

The question is whether that thunder is merely sound and fury, or whether it presages a storm that could endanger any of the Republicans involved in the negotiations.

“The seven so-called centrists who made this deal showed an incredible disconnect with the voters who put their party in power last year,” said Amanda Banks, federal issues analyst for Focus on the Family, the socially conservative group led by James Dobson. “The 2004 election produced seven new conservative Senators and re-elected a conservative, President Bush. But these people seemed more interested in appeasing The Washington Post than the voters.”

Banks predicted that the three Republicans seeking re-election next year — Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), Mike DeWine (Ohio) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) — could be particularly vulnerable to conservatives’ attacks.

“I think this will be a campaign issue for each of those up in ’06,” she said.

But the old adage that you can’t beat someone with no one holds true, and whether conservatives’ anger translates into credible primary challenges for any of these Republican incumbents is difficult to say.

In Rhode Island, Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey has been weighing a GOP primary challenge to Chafee, the most liberal Republican in the Senate, for months.

But Robin Muskian-Schutt, a spokeswoman for Laffey, refused on Tuesday to characterize Chafee’s stance on judicial filibusters as pivotal to the mayor’s decision on whether to run for Senate next year. In fact, she said Laffey is declining to comment on any national issue at the moment.

Inquiries from reporters about Laffey’s political plans are answered with a written statement from the mayor in which he observes that “fair-minded Republicans, Democrats, and Independents are not happy with the way things are running in Washington — and neither am I.”

Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group that promotes GOP moderates, said that Chafee’s participation in the negotiations should boost his re-election prospects in Rhode Island, a state that gave Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) a 21-point win over Bush in last year’s presidential election.

“Voters should welcome” the compromise, Resnick said. “Linc Chafee saved a lot of time and a lot of heartache for a lot of people.”

Resnick noted that despite their occasional frustration with his voting record, Republican leaders — including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee — are committed to Chafee’s re-election in 2006.

Meanwhile, in Maine, conservative state Rep. Brian Duprey has openly contemplated challenging Snowe in a GOP primary next year.

Duprey did not respond to phone messages left at his home and office Tuesday. But he recently told the Christian Civic League of Maine’s online newsletter that he would run “if I can raise enough seed money to kick off a credible campaign.” He also promised to pay particular attention to Snowe’s stance on judicial appointments.

“If she votes against President Bush’s judicial nominees or tries to block the president’s agenda, it will speed up my decision to run,” he told the newsletter.

But Snowe remains Maine’s most popular politician. A political columnist for the Portland Phoenix wrote in March, “Duprey is about as much of a threat to Snowe’s continued tenure in Congress as the football team from the School for Undernourished Children with Problems Following Directions is to the New England Patriots’ next Super Bowl championship.”

Meanwhile in Ohio, DeWine, whose record is considerably more conservative than Chafee’s or Snowe’s (he carries a lifetime grade of 82 from the American Conservative Union, compared to 51 for Snowe and 41 for Chafee), is not expected to face a challenge from the right.

“I know a lot of Christian Coalition activists who would support a challenge to DeWine in the primary,” said Jim Backlin, vice president of legislative affairs for the Christian Coalition of America.

But his participation in the filibuster compromise could help attract swing voters in the ultimate swing state. Democrats are hoping to give the two-term Senator a tough race in 2006 but have no prominent challengers on the horizon at the moment.

Banks said that even if there are no primary challenges to the three GOP incumbents up for re-election next year, Focus on the Family will “educate the voters in each of those states” and will make sure that the compromise “will be at the top of the list” of issues the group emphasizes.

David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union, said the political fallout for the trio may not be known until a future battle over a judicial nomination, and it could be determined by whether the Democrats are willing to compromise then or launch a filibuster.

“They’ve managed to do something that you never want to do, which is put your future in the hands of your opponents,” Keene said.

Three of the four other Republicans who crafted the compromise — Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and John Warner (Va.) — aren’t up for re-election until 2008.

Graham’s participation in the talks surprised and angered many conservatives.

“He’s got a little time, but Lindsey’s sort of playing with fire,” Keene said. “But like a moth, it’s because he’s attracted to it.”

The fourth, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), isn’t up until 2010. But he is expected to run for president in 2008, and while his role as the Republican leader of the compromise talks may not endear him to GOP social conservatives, that has rarely worried him in the past.

“He’s already a pariah with a lot of the base of the party,” Keene said. Nicole Duran and Paul Kane contributed to this report.