Rhode Island Race May Be Key to Senate

Times Staff Writer

He opposed Bush administration tax cuts, voted against Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. and was the only Republican senator to vote no on the war in Iraq. On his presidential ballot in 2004, Lincoln Chafee even voted against George W. Bush, writing in the name of the president’s father instead.

Chafee’s liberal-to-moderate inclinations have served him well in his home state, where fewer than 70,000 voters are registered Republicans. His famous name also has been an asset: Chafee’s late father, John, was beloved as a progressive Republican who served Rhode Island as governor and U.S. senator. Lincoln Chaffee was appointed to his father’s seat in 1999.

But in a surprisingly heated primary contest Tuesday, Chafee will face off against Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey. The 44-year-old former investment banker, who has drawn support from national conservative organizations, has tried to paint Chafee as hopelessly out of touch with his own party.


In turn, national Republican groups worried about the party losing its hold on the Senate have sponsored anti-Laffey ads, such as the one that warns: “Mayor Steve Laffey accepts Mexican ID cards that can threaten our security. Will he put our security at risk in the Senate?”

Perhaps the better question is whether Rhode Island voters will deal a clear blow to the GOP Senate majority. The outcome of the Chafee-Laffey race, considered too close to call, could alter the larger struggle for dominance in the Senate, because Laffey probably could not defeat the expected Democratic nominee.

Democrats must win a net six seats in November’s general election to gain a majority. The spot held by the 53-year-old Chafee -- one of the Republicans’ most prominent Senate renegades -- is among the most vulnerable, making his battle with Laffey the marquee matchup on a day when eight other states and the District of Columbia will conduct primaries.

“This primary determines whether Republicans can stay competitive in the Senate race” in Rhode Island, said Jennifer Duffy, a native of the state who is editor of the Cook Political Report in Washington. “If Chafee does not win this primary, Republicans may be done in Rhode Island. They may take the resources they have allocated for this state and put them somewhere else because they don’t believe Laffey can win.”

A Laffey victory would represent a major triumph for the Club for Growth, an anti-tax and advocacy group that seeks to return the Republican Party to the economically conservative ideals of President Reagan. The Club for Growth, which has poured more than $700,000 into Laffey’s campaign, also takes credit for toppling Republican Rep. Joe Schwarz of Michigan in that state’s August primary.

David Keating, the group’s executive director, said he was unconcerned about how a potential Chafee defeat might shift Senate power. “Looking at the whole picture, we thought this was a good idea,” Keating said. “Look, if the Republicans are going to lose control, they are going to lose this seat anyway.”

Chafee could become the latest in a spate of incumbents defeated in recent primaries. Republican Gov. Frank H. Murkowski of Alaska lost his party’s primary in late August, as did Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney of Georgia and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, both Democrats, earlier in the month.

In Rhode Island, comparisons are being drawn between Chafee and Lieberman, despite the fact that they represent different parties. The parallel, Rhode Islanders say, lies in grass-roots dissatisfaction with someone in power.

“Everyone wants to know if Chafee is going to be the next Lieberman,” said Darrell West, a Brown University professor of political science. “His problem is that he is a moderate facing a rebellion from within his own party. It is much the same as Lieberman. The difference is, Chafee voted against the war, and Lieberman in favor. Chafee has upset the Republican rank-and-file voters. If only the grass roots show up on Tuesday, he will lose.”

West said he did not conduct a poll in this Senate primary because the sample of voters was so unreliable. As registered independents, about 50% of Rhode Islanders can take a GOP ballot on Tuesday. Democrats are barred from crossing over.

Chuck Newton, spokesman for the Rhode Island Republican Party, said state and national GOP groups have backed Chafee because “no poll has come out from day one showing that Steve Laffey can beat Sheldon Whitehouse,” the former state attorney general who is heavily favored in the Democratic primary.

“Chafee can win against Whitehouse, and Laffey can’t. That’s exactly it,” he said.

Veteran pollster Victor Profughi, director of the Bureau of Government Research and Services at Rhode Island College, agreed that conventional wisdom said Laffey couldn’t win. “But I would never put much stock in conventional wisdom,” Profughi said. “Laffey is a very effective grass-roots campaigner. He really excites people. He is very strong among people who ought to be dyed-in-the-wool Democrats. If you think of a Huey Long, he’s that kind of person. It’s oratory -- all style.”

Laffey’s director of communications, Nachama Soloveichik, said: “Listen, the polls have said a lot of things. Stay tuned. Steve has never entered anything that he didn’t think he could do all the way.”

Soloveichik all but dismissed the role the Club for Growth has played in Laffey’s campaign. “A lot of candidates get a lot of money from out of state,” she said. “It is a small state, not a particularly wealthy state. This is not some nefarious issue.”

But Ian Lang, Chafee’s campaign manager, accused Laffey of putting personal ambition “above the good of the party -- jeopardizing this seat. If Steve Laffey wins, this seat goes Democratic. It’s as simple as that.”

Lang said the Rhode Island results could ripple across the Senate. “I think the Club for Growth is trying to send a message to other moderates -- that ‘we’re going to come after you,’ ” he said. “And they’re not thinking about what’s in the best interest of the Republican Party.”