In the long list of Republican regrets about the 2006 elections, there is undoubtedly an entry for Sen. Lincoln Chafee. All told, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and other edifices of the national party spent over $1 million to drag Chafee, the most liberal Republican senator, across the finish line in a competitive GOP primary. Once Chafee was renominated, 94 percent of Rhode Island Republicans voted for him in the general election even though his positions on most issues were indistinguishable from those of his Democratic opponent.
Chafee lost the election anyway, since Republicans only represented about 18 percent of the electorate in the heavily Democratic Ocean State. And he didn’t seem particularly grateful for his party’s support. Two days after the election, he told reporters he was unsure of whether he would remain a Republican. When asked if he thought his defeat might have helped the country by turning the Senate over to the Democrats, he replied, “To be honest, yes.” Chafee then hinted that the only reason he hadn’t switched parties before the election was that his GOP affiliation helped him bring home federal dollars to Rhode Island.
Most people have since forgotten about the ingratitude of Rhode Island’s forgettable former senator. But Steve Laffey, the man who tried to unseat him in last year’s Republican primary, still remembers. The two-term Cranston mayor has even written a book, Primary Mistake: How the Washington Republican Establishment Lost Everything in 2006 (and Sabotaged My Senatorial Campaign), to remind everyone else.
The subtitle says it all as far as the book’s thesis is concerned, but it doesn’t begin to describe the color with which Laffey tells his story. In keeping with the jokes about his surname, Laffey is a pretty funny guy. His sense of humor comes in handy, because without it his tome might be defined by sour grapes.
A good portion of Primary Mistake is devoted to Laffey coming to terms with why, as an American citizen who met the constitutional requirements to serve in the Senate, people kept telling him he couldn’t run. He recalls getting similar treatment when he first decided to run for mayor of Cranston: The party establishment told him he couldn’t run because they already had a candidate. A successful businessman before going into politics, Laffey looked at the Cranston party elders the way he looked at his “three-year-old daughter, Audrey, when she throws all the shampoo bottles in the toilet” and said would spend a quarter of a million dollars of his own money to win the nomination. According to Laffey, the man GOP leaders had picked to be the nominee responded by bursting into tears and withdrawing from the race.
Laffey had no such luck with Lincoln Chafee and the Republican leaders in Washington. He recalls meetings with Elizabeth Dole’s NRSC staff where they told him he could do whatever he wanted, but they were not going to support him. Based on Chafee’s liberal record, Laffey seems almost perplexed by this decision:
When I ran for reelection as the mayor of Cranston, there was an Independent candidate running whose only claim to fame was that he wanted to keep a thirty-five-foot inflatable gorilla in his backyard. (Talk about a single-issue candidate!) He was endearingly referred to as Gorilla Man. I never thought to say, “Why is Gorilla Man running?” When the debates were scheduled, I showed up and debated him along with the Democratic candidate…
This is America. Even Gorilla Man can run and get 4 percent of the vote.
Laffey is no Gorilla Man. He was twice elected mayor of an overwhelmingly Democratic city, winning a second term by a landslide margin. Throughout the campaign he polled well against Chafee, yet trailed the Democrats.
To the Beltway Republicans, that was all there was to it. In head-to-head match-ups with Democratic candidate Sheldon Whitehouse, Chafee was within the margin for error and Laffey wasn’t. Chafee was at least a possible winner while Laffey was a likely loser.
Consequently, the NRSC funded a very negative campaign against Laffey — in no small part because it was difficult to run a positive campaign that would encourage conservatives to vote for Chafee. The GOP ran ads attacking Laffey for raising taxes and allowing illegal immigrants to use consular ID cards from Mexico and Guatemala, even though Chafee voted against all the Bush tax cuts and supported amnesty.
On Iraq, abortion, Samuel Alito’s confirmation, taxes, and same-sex marriage Laffey agreed with the Republican base while Chafee was on the other side. But on primary day, 54 percent of Rhode Island Republicans agreed that the only vote that counted was the one that allowed the GOP to organize the Senate, dashing Laffey’s hopes. In November, Democrats and independents felt the same way and voted Chafee out of office by a similar margin.
Both Laffey and his GOP opponents had a point. It was wasteful to expend so much time and money attacking an up-and-coming Republican politician in order to prop up an unreliable senator who might have pulled a Jim Jeffords in any event. Those resources would have been better spent finding a primary challenger for Conrad Burns or hiding George Allen until Election Day. But if Chafee couldn’t beat Whitehouse, Laffey didn’t stand a chance.
If Laffey could have held onto the seat, the national party would have given Chafee as little help as it provided the ill-fated Bob Smith in his 2002 New Hampshire primary fight with John Sununu. Reading Primary Mistake made me repent of my own pro-Chafee musings, but I doubt many GOP operatives will be so moved.
Laffey downplays the substantial support he received from outside groups like the Club for Growth, which are almost as influential as the NRSC. He rarely mentions the extent to which his critics were able to use his funny-guy routine against him, such as when they unearthed articles he wrote as a College Republican at Bowdoin. Laffey’s oeuvre included such ’80s-era chestnuts as, ” “When I hear it [Boy George] sing, ‘Do you really want to hurt me, do you really want to make me cry,’ I say to myself, YES, I want to punch your lights out, pal, and break your ribs.”
In the end, Laffey’s story is really about the frequently ignored difference between the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Political parties are about winning elections and wielding power. Ideological movements are about ideas and values. Confuse the two and you wind up with something like the Chafee-Laffey primary contest.