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R.I. Senate Contest Heats Up With Laffey’s Entry Into Race

Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey entered the Rhode Island Republican Senate race with a bang — a wave of TV advertising that’s highly unusual more than a year before the 2006 primary. Now the question is whether the incumbent, Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R), can change the likely dynamic in the race and, with the help of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, win himself another term.

In my view — and it isn’t one shared by everyone — the odds are stacked against the Senator. That doesn’t mean Chafee will lose, only that he must come from behind, either by pummeling Laffey or by taking advantage of the mayor’s missteps. [IMGCAP(1)]

First, let me note right off that I don’t believe the picture painted by a new Brown University poll that shows Chafee leading Laffey 44 percent to 24 percent in a Republican primary. While I don’t know that I agree with a friend who characterized that survey as “ridiculous,” I do have major concerns about the sample — and the numbers don’t make sense to Chafee or Laffey supporters whom I respect.

Six months ago, a Laffey poll found more “likely Republican primary voters” holding an unfavorable view of Chafee than a favorable one. The so-called first ballot, which tested the candidates in a hypothetical ballot before any information was given about the two Republicans, showed Laffey with a healthy double-digit lead over the incumbent. I see no reason why those numbers should have changed measurably since then.

Chafee has hired the same talented consulting team that rescued Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) from an insurgent conservative primary challenger, then-Rep. Pat Toomey, and I expect them to put together a very competent effort. They may even win. But Chafee faces a much rougher road than did Specter, and at some point he may have to consider running as an Independent if he wants to keep his Senate seat.

Specter began his re-election with a solid favorable rating of more than 60 percent among Republicans — far, far better than where Chafee stands now. And Toomey began his challenge much further behind in the ballot test than does Laffey.

Specter led Toomey by more than 25 points in two polls conducted less than six months before the 2004 primary, and the Pennsylvania Senator was always at or above 50 percent. Chafee is nowhere near that number.

Moreover, Specter’s financial advantage over Toomey was more important than Chafee’s will be against Laffey, since Pennsylvania is a far larger state with more, and more expensive, media markets.

According to data supplied by Media Strategies and Research, a Democratic polling and media-buying firm, the cost for a point of TV advertising in the Providence-New Bedford media market, which covers the entire state of Rhode Island, will be about $93 in the third quarter of 2006. In contrast, Specter and Toomey paid about $750-$800 per statewide point during the nearly four months before their April 2004 primary.

Supporters of the Senator believe their opposition research is turning up enough information to put the mayor on the defensive, and Chafee already has hit Laffey in an interview for raising taxes in Cranston. That’s a good sign for Chafee partisans.

Backers of the Senator also argue that Chafee will attract the votes of unaffiliated voters. While Specter successfully convinced some Pennsylvania Democrats to change their party registration so that they could vote for him in the GOP primary, re-registration scenarios rarely succeed. But the bigger problem for the Chafee camp is that, as things stand, a Democratic Senate primary in the state will be held the same day.

Influential Rhode Island political columnist Charlie Bakst of the Providence Journal expressed surprise in a recent column at the content of Laffey’s announcement, noting that the mayor “cast himself as a populist, a reformer, a David who took on the Goliath special interests in Cranston,” rather than as a conservative who supports President Bush.

Laffey’s outsider message does risk alienating some conservatives who would like to get rid of Chafee but not at any cost. However, the mayor’s message fits the current national mood quite nicely, since voters are generally dissatisfied with the performance of Congress and the direction of the country, and many are sick of the knee-jerk partisanship that is readily apparent in Washington, D.C.

Just as important, Laffey’s approach addresses the electability issue that his adversaries raise, since he would have a much better chance of winning a general election as a populist rather than as a bomb-throwing conservative who would toe the GOP line on Capitol Hill.

Laffey’s decision to run a wave of early TV advertising is a gamble, since it means spending resources now that he may need next fall. But that decision also suggests that the mayor’s campaign will be anything but predictable.

The one big question mark that can’t be ignored is Laffey himself. Running for the Senate is very different from running for mayor of Cranston, and if he isn’t careful, he could help Chafee snatch a victory.

Still, Chafee has serious problems in the primary, and he’ll need all of the help he can get from his friends at the White House, the Republican National Committee and the NRSC to help him dodge this bullet.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.