Party of Lincoln

Imagine the following scenario: It's election night and the Senate again splits 50-50. Who is now the most important man in Washington? It's not President George W. Bush, Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) or Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). It's a freshman senator from a small northern state.

That senator is Rhode Island Republican Lincoln Chafee, and the scenario isn't as unlikely as it sounds. If the Senate splits, control of the chamber reverts to Republican hands. The untimely death of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) on Oct. 25 means Republicans could regain their majority as early as November 6, if Republican candidate Norm Coleman wins the election and takes his seat immediately. Chafee -- who has opposed the administration on numerous issues like President Bush's tax cut, campaign finance reform, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and, most recently, authorizing military action against Iraq -- could find himself holding the fate of the Bush agenda in his hands.

The junior senator from the Ocean State has been coy in answering questions about whether he would leave his party, a la Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), his friend who went through this process last year. "Cross that bridge if we get to it," Chafee has said, not exactly reassuring Republicans who are anxious to avoid another embarrassing loss and to promote their agenda with full control of Congress and the White House (assuming, as is likely, that Republicans keep the House).

His spokesman has insisted that Chafee has no intention of leaving the party (although it he took a never-say-never stance). But Chafee's past statements are giving hope to Democrats who see the Senate as their only vehicle for maintaining a check on the Bush administration's excesses. Asked if Chafee would be a Democrat this time next year, Daschle replied, "possible." Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) joked to Roll Call that Chafee "would probably be a better Democrat than I am."

Finding himself in the middle of such speculation is an uncomfortable spot for Chafee, a 49-year-old former blacksmith who often walks around Capitol Hill seemingly awed that he's there. He hasn't fit easily into the party since he got to the Senate in 1999, appointed to complete the term of his father, the late GOP Sen. John Chafee. (The son won his own six-year term a year later.) Conservatives don't trust his voting record (many consider him a Republican in Name Only and with good reason; in 2000, he voted against his party 63 percent of the time) and the moderates' voice in the party is barely louder than a squeak. Chafee's signature issue -- the environment -- isn't exactly a favorite of the Bush administration.

Wellstone's death could put Chafee under greater pressure to switch parties and thus swing control of the Senate to the Democrats. But political observers believe the odds are against a Chafee switch. Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University, says he would be "shocked" if Chafee jumped parties. Being a Republican, West notes, is "something that is a part of how he thinks of himself." After all, Chafee is named after a Republican president. His father, who was first elected to the Senate in 1976, was always loyal to the party, even though he sometimes disagreed with its positions.

There's also some political risk involved for Chafee if he makes a switch. Chafee won his first term with 57 percent of the vote and his recent approval numbers remain strong. A poll by Brown University's Taubman Center for Public Policy in mid-October showed that 59 percent of voters think Chafee is doing a "good" or "excellent" job; only 10 percent believe he's doing a "poor" job. But even with those numbers, Chafee could face problems if he runs as a Democrat, including a tough primary. "He's just not liberal enough for the Democratic party establishment," West says.

And, if he leaves the GOP, Chafee would likely lose his influence as a moderate who can broker deals with senators on both sides of the aisle. "He wants to use it as leverage," says Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. Party switchers, he adds, are "never fully accepted by their new party and never fully trusted by their old party." Many Republicans no longer speak to Jeffords, who wrote a bestselling book called "My Declaration of Independence" about his decision to bolt the GOP.

Of course, one question is whether the White House and Senate Republicans learned their lesson in 2001. Arrogance led them to believe that Jeffords wouldn't leave the GOP even after they ignored his request for additional education funding; by the time top Republicans got personally involved in trying to prevent Jeffords' switch, it was too late. Lott has said he speaks to Chafee "quite often" and Chafee insists he doesn't feel ignored by his party. Republicans should realize, says West, that he's "the best they can do here."

Another factor is Democrats' ability to convince a Republican to join their ranks; historically, they've had a harder time getting lawmakers to cross over to their side of the aisle. In the last 50 years, 16 Democratic members of Congress have become Republicans; only five have done the reverse. Democrats-turned-Republicans in the Senate include Phil Gramm of Texas, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Lott (although the retiring Gramm and Thurmond will be gone next year). After the GOP won control of both houses of Congress in 1994, Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado and Richard Shelby of Alabama became Republicans, as did five House members. The only recent Republican-turned-Democrat is Rep. Michael Forbes (R-N.Y.), who lost his seat one year after his 1999 defection.

But while the Reagan era in the 1980s and the Republican revolution in 1994 gave conservative Democrats (many of them southern) a reason to switch parties, the tide may finally be turning the other way. Many Republicans at local levels of government are now leaving the GOP because they feel its philosophy no longer fits their own, especially on social issues; Jeffords made that clear last year. Gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's running mate in Maryland is a former Republican; Rep. Bob Ehlrich (R), Townsend's opponent, failed to get a Democrat to turn and join him on the ticket. In Minnesota, Judi Dutcher, who ran for the Democratic nomination for governor, left the GOP in 2000 because of its position on abortion, among other issues. "I'm the same person," Dutcher told Tthe Associated Press. "I've always had the same principles and philosophies. I was always on pins and needles as a Republican." Chafee, for example, supports the right of military servicewomen to obtain privately funded abortions at bases overseas.

Chafee doesn't have to go all the way across the aisle; he could do pull a Jeffords and become an Independent. If that happens, Democrats should offer Chafee some tangible benefits for leaving the GOP. But perks alone won't -- and shouldn't -- do the job. (As Sabato says, opting to switch parties is a major decision, "akin to a divorce."). Many lawmakers who switch parties do so because their party no longer represents their constituency. Rhode Island is poised to elect a Democrat to the governor's mansion this year, and the other members of the state's congressional delegation are all Democrats. While voters aren't punishing Chafee for being a Republican, residents are clearly sending a signal as to which party they prefer.

Chafee has said that he believes he can best mold the GOP from the inside. So Democrats must convince him that switching parties, whatever the political cost, is worth his effort. If Republicans gain control of the White House and both branches of Congress, they're unlikely to want to heed voices of moderation and instead push through the agenda -- including many bills that Chafee has said that he is against -- that got stalled when Jeffords switched parties. And Wellstone's untimely death may allow them to do that during the lame-duck session in November rather than waiting until next year.

Of course, if Democrats retain the Senate on Nov. 5, the Chafee question will likely remain an academic one. If not, they must persuade him that becoming an Independent and caucusing with the Democrats is the only way to advance the interests dearest to Chafee and also the voters of Rhode Island.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is a senior editor at the Prospect.