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Chafee Faces Rough Road to Re-election

Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) has a problem. No, it isn’t that he is a Republican in a Democratic state; he has faced that challenge before and overcome it. It’s that he may face a formidable GOP primary opponent. And that could be the test that Chafee fails.

The 52-year-old moderate and the son of the late Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.) may well find himself facing Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey in next September’s Republican Senate primary. It’s a prospect that’s already giving some party strategists indigestion. [IMGCAP(1)]

Laffey’s candidacy would surely appeal to conservatives — both nationally and in the state — all of whom see Chafee as a liberal with more in common with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry than President Bush. (In fact, Chafee stated publicly that he didn’t vote to re-elect the president last year.)

And at this point, it appears unlikely that Chafee could defeat Laffey. “The day after Laffey announces his candidacy, Chafee is an underdog,” agreed one Republican backing the incumbent Senator.

I haven’t yet met Laffey, but people who know him use words like “intense,” “smart,” “energetic” and “maverick” to describe the mayor, who was recently re-elected in the very Democratic city of Cranston.

“He gets the media,” one Republican told me, adding that the fast-talking Laffey, a graduate of Bowdoin College and Harvard Business School, is filled with ideas about both public policy and self-promotion.

People who have met him invariably use use the word “ego.” “He loves the limelight, loves the fact that his name is mentioned for higher office,” said one admirer. Those less sympathetic call him arrogant.

Although Laffey has not yet made a final decision about taking on Chafee, it’s clear that he’s ready to move on to a new challenge after working to turn the city of Cranston around.

“He’s very, very ambitious — I mean, very ambitious,” noted an observer, adding the extra “very” to drive home the point.

A run against the state’s sitting Republican Senator would seem to be the big test that Laffey is looking for. (State Republicans have signaled to Laffey that he could be GOP Gov. Don Carcieri’s running-mate for lieutenant governor next year, but the mayor hasn’t exactly jumped at the offer.)

If Laffey runs, he’d surely seek the support of the Club for Growth, which has backed a number of insurgent anti-tax conservatives against established GOP politicians. The group hasn’t even started to evaluate Laffey as a possible candidate to support, but it is watching.

“We were interested in the race even before rumors of Laffey running, because of Chafee’s record,” David Keating, the Club for Growth’s executive director, told me.

The club’s new president, Pat Toomey, who was born in Rhode Island, isn’t likely to be persuaded to stay out of the race by pressure from big-name Republicans or warnings that he couldn’t win a general election. Toomey, himself, then a House Member from Pennsylvania, took on moderate Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) two years ago and came within an eyelash of defeating him in a GOP primary.

“This is almost a perfect payback to the party and the Senate committee for what they did to Toomey” by supporting Specter so strongly during the 2004 Pennsylvania Senate primary, one wise insider recently observed.

Chafee is readying for the battle. He has more than $900,000 in the bank now and has a major fundraiser scheduled for New York City at the end of the month. And the party’s heavy hitters have lined up behind him.

“Everyone is 100 percent for Chafee — the Republican National Committee, the White House and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Laffey shouldn’t have any illusions. If he gets into the race, we will try to finish his political career,” one national Republican strategist told me recently.

The Senator benefits from voters’ continuing loyalty to his father, and from the fact the Ocean State voters like “independent” candidates. Unaffiliated voters can participate in either party’s primary, and the Senator’s campaign will need their support. Unfortunately for him, the Democrats seem headed for a primary too, which could shrink the pool of crossover primary voters.

To many, Chafee seems less impressive and decisive than Laffey. “He’s filled with angst about everything,” a close observer said. But the Senator is also widely regarded as a nice guy, and that can be a considerable asset in a small state where everyone seems to know each other.

Still, Chafee must prove that he can run the kind of aggressive, professional campaign that is needed to defeat Laffey. In 2000, the NRSC picked out Chafee’s consulting team and essentially ran the campaign. This time, the Senator hasn’t put his complete consulting team together yet, and he hasn’t conducted a benchmark poll — a necessity for an embattled incumbent.

If Chafee survives the primary, he’ll have another battle ahead in the general election. But that race looks more winnable for the Senator.

By contrast, a Laffey primary victory would make it harder for the GOP to hold the seat. While some Republican strategists note the appeal of Laffey’s populism and the stature that he would receive from defeating Chafee, most party insiders have a different view.

They argue that Laffey would defeat Chafee by running to the right and appealing to Republican partisans. That kind of primary campaign would leave Laffey poorly positioned to win a general election in a state that was one of President Bush’s worst.

Chafee’s only hope of survival may be a decision by Laffey not to challenge him. That’s possible, but as one observer in the state told me, “It would take a change of heart by Laffey to avoid a primary.”

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report

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