Republicans Get Dirty–Against Fellow Conservative Republican

A few days ago I wrote about speculation that the Republicans were responsible for attacks on Stephen Laffey, Lincoln Chafey’s challenger in the Rhode Island primary. Walter Shapiro writes about this race in Salon:

One of the nastier attack ads currently being aired anywhere in the country is being aired here, and is sponsored by the National Republican Senate 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).

Chaffee may be more liberal than me on that last one. If there is capital punishment for anyone in existence, bin Laden is not the one I would defend against execution. Shapiro discusses Chaffee further and then turns to Laffey, and the bottom line as to why the GOP support Chafee, knowing he is their best chance to hold Rhode Island’s Senate seat when even even one vote might tip the balance:

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 fund-raising 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 pot-bellied 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 5-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.

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