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Prudence at the Polls

By David S. Broder
Thursday, September 14, 2006

The lesson from Tuesday's round of primaries in nine states and the District of Columbia was simple and reassuring. Credentials count. Experience counts. And so does the willingness to engage some serious issues.

For the most part, the candidates nominated for Congress and governor come from the mainstream establishments of their parties. Despite the widespread voter discontent with the political status quo, few mavericks, rebels or true outsiders won places on the November ballot.

In the day's headline event, Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, the most liberal Republican in the Senate, turned back the challenge of Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey, a conservative populist.

The margin was not great -- 5,000 votes in a turnout of some 63,000. Chafee probably owes his victory as much to the financial and organizational support supplied by the Republicans' national campaign committees as to his own diffident campaigning. The White House and GOP Senate leaders decided to overlook Chafee's frequent disagreements with the president in hopes of keeping a Senate seat that Democrats have to win to have any chance of capturing a Senate majority.

The Chafee name is honored in Rhode Island, thanks to the legacy of the incumbent's father, the late John Chafee, who served as governor and senator for years. Chafee still faces a serious challenge from the Democratic nominee, former state attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse, in the heavily Democratic state. But the Republicans' chances are far better with Chafee than with anyone else.

In another Rhode Island contest, Brown University professor Jennifer Lawless challenged Rep. Jim Langevin in the Democratic primary, arguing that his support of bills to finance the war in Iraq and his opposition to abortion rights put him outside the mainstream of the party. But this effort failed, as did most other tries inside Democratic primaries to repeat Ned Lamont's upset of Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman. With Lieberman now out front in the race, running as an independent, the idea that Lamont represented the new model for the party looks suspect.

One exception was in New Hampshire, where an antiwar activist, Carol Shea-Porter, who mobilized student and liberal support, beat the party-endorsed legislative leader, Jim Craig, for a House nomination. But she is a long shot against Republican Rep. Jeb Bradley.

The antiwar maverick who tried to upset Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York predictably was swamped, as was the estimable Long Island Democratic official, Thomas Suozzi, who challenged Attorney General Eliot Spitzer for governor. Spitzer now becomes a heavy favorite in November.

In another New York race, a seeming outsider, musician and pop composer John Hall, won the Democratic nomination to oppose Republican Rep. Sue Kelly. Hall, who played with the rock band Orleans and co-wrote "Still the One," had to overcome the early favorite, Judy Aydelott, who switched from the GOP in disagreement with President Bush's policies and attracted support from feminist groups and Hollywood types. Hall had stronger ties to the district's Democrats, and the backing of organized labor, so he was really the insiders' choice.

But out in Arizona, the power of another issue -- immigration -- was displayed when Randy Graf, an outspoken advocate of closing the border, won a close victory over party-endorsed moderate state Rep. Steve Huffman, for the Republican nomination to succeed retiring Rep. Jim Kolbe. The Kolbe-backed Huffman might have won, except that another moderate candidate took 12 percent of the vote -- twice Graf's margin. The district now becomes even more of a pickup target for the Democrats.

In Maryland, quiet competence prevailed when Rep. Ben Cardin, a 10-term veteran of the House and one of its most skilled but unflamboyant legislators, won in a large field to pick a successor to retiring Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes. Having defeated Kweisi Mfume, the former head of the NAACP, in the primary, Cardin now faces another attractive African American, Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele. Maryland usually elects Democrats, but Steele could change the dynamics of the race.

The Sarbanes legacy continues, as the senator's son, attorney John Sarbanes, won the Democratic nomination to succeed Cardin in the House. His dad appeared in the novice candidate's commercials.

Another notable likely Democratic winner is state Rep. Keith Ellison of Minneapolis, the nominee for the seat of retiring Rep. Martin Olav Sabo in a heavily Democratic district. Ellison would be the first Muslim elected to Congress.

All together, the day's results showed commendable discernment on the part of the voters. It augurs well for November.

davidbroder@washpost.com

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