GOP kisses up to liberal Chafee

Chances for a Democratic takeover of the Senate may hinge on whether Republican maverick Lincoln Chafee survives the Rhode Island primary.

Published September 1, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

One of the nastier attack ads currently being aired anywhere in the country is being aired here, and is sponsored by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the official arm of the GOP majority. The 30-second spot employs all the traditional techniques of political fear-mongering: a voice-of-doom narrator, grainy photographs, purported FBI warnings, menacing footage of a Willie Horton-like villain (a Hispanic illegal immigrant) and the stark closing question about the challenger, "Will he put our security at risk in the Senate?"

The factual basis for the commercial is flimsy. The mayor of Cranston agreed in 2005 to accept Mexican-government-issued matricula cards as a valid form of identification, a position so radical that it is shared by the U.S. Treasury Department. But that justification is enough to allow the NRSC to tar the mayor, who is now running for the Senate, as a permissive advocate of open borders who is seemingly eager for every resident of a Mexican barrio to move into the mansions of Newport.

What makes this GOP smear attack so unusual is that the target of this venom, Mayor Steve Laffey, is a Republican. And he is the only Rhode Island Senate candidate who voted for George W. Bush in 2004, supports the Iraq war and believes in the magic elixir of Miracle-Gro tax cuts. Laffey's unforgivable sin in the eyes of the national Republican establishment is that he has an even-money chance of defeating antiwar incumbent GOP Sen. Lincoln Chafee in the traditionally low-turnout Sept. 12 party primary.

There are other Senate races that are weird (Republican Katherine Harris impersonating Cruella De Vil in Florida), but none that are simultaneously as odd and as important as the Rhode Island race. Without picking up Rhode Island, the Democrats have almost no chance of winning back the Senate. Chafee represents the only hope for the Republicans to hold the seat in a state so blue that no GOP presidential candidate has received 40 percent of the vote here since 1988. (Bush's approval rating in Rhode Island is a comically low 20 percent.) If Laffey, a populist conservative, were to win the primary, all the polls and portents suggest that he would be whomped by Democratic nominee Sheldon Whitehouse, a former state attorney general.

It is hard to imagine a senator more diffident and more different from the blow-dried norm than the aristocratic 53-year-old Chafee, who was originally appointed to the Senate in 1999 on the death of his father, John Chafee, who had served since 1977. His lonely guy approach to politics transcends his voting record (Chafee was the only GOP senator to vote against the Iraq war and also opposed the Bush tax cuts) or his outspoken liberal views on social issues (during last Saturday night's final TV debate with Laffey, the senator stressed his support for gay marriage and bravely opposed capital punishment for Osama bin Laden).

Even in this hard-fought primary campaign, Chafee's style is midway between understatement and invisibility. Speaking Tuesday to about 150 elderly voters after having lunch at the Cranston senior center ("Mayor Laffey's Suggestion Box" was mounted on the wall right outside the cafeteria), Chafee's vote-for-me appeal lasted less than two minutes.

"As you know, there is a primary September 12, so that's a big day," Chafee declared in a soft voice as he neared his rousing crescendo. "The differences here are great and your choices here are great. Senator Chafee has been very, very steady and won't blow with the wind on issues." Aside from talking about himself in the third person, Chafee's only overtly political move was raising his hand to volunteer to say grace, offering a nondenominational seven-second blessing that ended with the appeal to "make us ever mindful of the needs of others."

As Chafee, wearing a plaid suit and white shirt, made his low-key circuit of the room -- limiting his electioneering to half-sentences like "Any help you can give me" -- the response, even among partisan Democrats, was friendly. But finding likely primary voters in a state where registered Republicans (just 69,000) are as rare as Eskimos in Florida was a different story. A typical answer to the will-you-be-voting query came from retiree Anthony Galasso, who looked up from his watery vegetable soup to say, "I'm a registered Democrat, so I guess I can't vote in the primary. But I'm voting for Chafee. He'll make it to November."

Chafee's fidelity to the Republican Party reflects more homage to the faith of his father than a rational belief that the party's moderate wing will ever regain power. Courted by the Democrats after Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords defected from the GOP in 2001, Chafee told me back then that he was committed to the Republicans for "the long haul. It will take something pretty extreme for that to change."

Five years, two wars and more than $1 trillion in budget deficits later, Chafee is still trying to muster arguments to justify his party allegiance. After the lunch in Cranston, I asked the embattled incumbent how -- given his views -- he could justify voting with the Republicans to determine which party controls the Senate and gets to choose committee chairmen. "The only way my vote is significant is if it's 50-50," Chafee responded. "Otherwise, it's irrelevant. And that possibility seems remote as you look ahead at the races." (With the Democrats running well against Republican incumbents in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Montana and Missouri, the statistical possibility of deadlock is not nearly as far-fetched as Chafee suggested.)

During our interview, Chafee made clear that he walked a careful line within the Republican Party, dissenting without becoming a true apostate. "I've worked very hard -- knowing that my voting record is not with my party leadership or the administration -- to have good relations," he said. "Otherwise, you couldn't deliver for Rhode Island. Now, in turn, they're helping me in this election."

How, exactly, I asked, do you work with the administration?

Chafee's description of consciously pulling his punches was as revealing as his syntax was muddled: "Taking that step in my rhetoric too far might be what I've always been careful about. Voting against a bill, sure, I might like to tee off on a certain issue. But that might not be productive to other votes down the road, other positions I might have to take down the road, any help I might need from somebody down the road. So I think I've done a good job of stating my positions, but not taking that step too far either in rhetoric or action."

Monday night in the midst of a driving rain, Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, wearing a green windbreaker over an open-necked blue shirt, stood under a pavilion roof in Manville Park in Lincoln presiding over a hamburger cookout for 150 voters. According to his official count, this was Whitehouse's 31st outdoor event of the year. "You've heard about six degrees of separation," Whitehouse said to me. "It's two degrees of separation in Rhode Island. It makes the politics a lot more personal and I think a lot less amenable to outside influences."

In marked contrast to Chafee, the Democratic nominee portrays Rhode Island as the tipping point for control of the Senate. "It is absolutely essential that we win this Senate seat in Rhode Island to take back the Senate," Whitehouse declared in his stump speech in Lincoln. "And if we take back the Senate, things will change. We will have a real platform to push hard to get our troops home from Iraq ... We need to just say no to George Bush."

Up to now, Whitehouse has been running a generic Democratic campaign filled with the party's familiar buzzwords. His initial 60-second biographical ad (created by Tad Devine and Mike Donilon from Bob Shrum's old firm) was filled with gauzy images of the candidate talking to voters as the voice-over featured boilerplate lines like, "Sheldon Whitehouse will be a senator who will work ... for real solutions to the toughest problems facing our families, our seniors and our kids. For our seniors, fixing the new Medicare prescription drug plan, so it helps people, not the big drug companies."

This strategy might be effective against a typical Republican, but it is much harder to brandish these familiar weapons against Chafee, who cannot be easily demonized as the political frontman for drug companies or the oil industry. As a Rhode Island Democratic operative, who is not affiliated with the Whitehouse campaign, put it, "A Democrat running unopposed for six months as the Republicans go after each other on TV should be up by 10 points in the polls. And Sheldon is not -- he's running even with Chafee. And that worries me if Chafee wins the primary."

In our interview, Whitehouse, who comes from a similarly elite background as the incumbent senator, acknowledged the peculiar personal contours of a race against Chafee. "You have to make people understand that this election is not about Lincoln Chafee," he said. "I personally like Lincoln Chafee. The Whitehouse family and the Chafee family have been very close. His son Caleb and my son Alexander are classmates. His father and my father were classmates at Yale."

For Whitehouse and Democratic hopes in Rhode Island, it all comes down to the mantra: It's the control of the Senate, stupid. As Whitehouse put it, "Both Lincoln Chafee and Steve Laffey are going to go down to Washington and vote for Mitch McConnell for majority leader and the whole team of committee chairs. And every other vote they're going to take is going to be overwhelmed by that vote."

While he almost certainly is not going to be elected to the Senate in 2006, Steve Laffey, 44, is not the sort to be overwhelmed by much in life. This ultimate self-made candidate hails from a turbulent blue-collar Irish Catholic family in which one gay brother (whose lifestyle Laffey has publicly reviled) died of AIDS and two siblings are schizophrenics. Laffey is Archie Bunker with a Harvard MBA. After a career in investment banking, Laffey in 2002 was elected mayor of Cranston, the third largest city in the state, as it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Through a combination of tax increases and high-decibel fights with public-employee unions (Laffey's account of his heroic battle with the school crossing guards is his version of William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech), Cranston's bond rating was saved and Laffey was lionized as a conservative reform mayor.

No audience is too small for Laffey to revel in the politics of populist autobiography. Talking to a dozen people in an assisted-living facility in Warwick Monday afternoon, Laffey, with his jacket off and a mop of brown hair drooping over his eyes, declared, "The old-time Republican political elite that used to hang out at the country clubs, their power is waning. They're not used to ruddy-faced people like me, who used to be Democrats ... I'm a John F. Kennedy Republican. I'm strong on national defense and I want to cut taxes like he did."

Laffey's tax-cutting zeal (despite his initial record in Cranston) has won him the fervent support of the free-market Club for Growth, a conservative fundraising powerhouse that already has helped defeat moderate first-term Republican Rep. Joe Schwarz in the Michigan primary in August. While Laffey runs against the grain of conservative orthodoxy with his attacks on giant oil companies, the Club for Growth is willing to forgive a few doctrinal deviations in its efforts to punish Chafee for voting like a Democrat on taxes.

During an hourlong interview Wednesday at the Bon Ami coffee shop in Cranston, Laffey waxed sociological as he described in rich, almost novelistic detail the voters who comprise his political base: "My biggest supporter is a retired toolmaker like my dad. [This supporter is] a Democrat. He's Irish. He's Italian. He's Armenian. His father came over here. He's a Reagan Democrat. He's working on his deck and he's retired after 40 years from Electric Boat. Or he's retired after 35 years in the military ... He's worried about his Medicare. He's got Social Security. He's got a kid just out of college. That person -- that potbellied 65-year-old -- is the biggest supporter I have."

If turnout in the GOP primary is on par with 2002 (just 25,000 voters), Laffey's potbellied partisans may carry the day against the patrician Chafee. But if enough independents cast Republican ballots (which is permissible under state law) and turnout equals the 1994 record of 46,000, then Chafee may survive to bedevil Democratic hopes of winning the Senate.

Jennifer Duffy, the editor of the respected Cook Political Report and a Rhode Island native who has been following the primary race closely, says, "Based on anecdotal evidence, the electability argument is beginning to take hold with these fiscal conservatives who don't like Chafee, but see an advantage to having a Republican hold the seat."

Everyone is flying blind in Rhode Island, where there are no fully reliable public polls on the primary and political hunches are the coin of the realm. (A poll released this week by Rhode Island College showed Laffey leading Chafee 51 to 34 percent. But given the small size of the sample, a five-percentage-point margin of error and the vagaries of predicting who will actually vote in the primary, these results are far from definitive.)

It is strange that control of the Senate may hinge on the outcome of a GOP primary in which all the voters could fill Fenway Park (capacity about 36,000). But nothing is as peculiar (or politically realistic) as the Republican Party's unsentimental embrace of Lincoln Chafee, a free-thinking senator who could not even bring himself to vote for the incumbent president of his own party in 2004.

By Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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