Lessons Learned

Laffey Recounts Primary, Lays Out Plan for GOP in New Book

Posted October 5, 2007 at 3:51pm

Even when Republican Steve Laffey was only considering running for the Senate in 2006, the calls started coming in. First it was then-Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman. Rather than challenge Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) from the right in the GOP primary, Laffey should run for lieutenant governor, Mehlman said.

After the Cranston, R.I., mayor rebuffed that suggestion, it was Sara Taylor, who was then Karl Rove’s top deputy and the White House political director, calling with essentially the same message.

Finally, the National Republican Senatorial Committee got involved, with then-Chairwoman Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) inviting Laffey to Washington, D.C., for a visit. The office of lieutenant governor was mentioned yet again.

Republicans believed that Chafee, who famously refused to vote for President Bush in 2004 and is the son of popular former Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.), was their only chance for victory in a heavily Democratic state in what already was shaping up to be a good cycle for Democrats.

But Republicans’ involvement had the opposite of its intended effect, Laffey writes in his book “Primary Mistake,” which came out last month. Instead, it increased his desire to run.

The book is a journal of Laffey’s campaign, from its early stages to an unprecedented barrage of NRSC attacks against him to his ultimate defeat. It also is his indictment of national Republicans and a plan for the party to regain its way.

“The people I spoke with were not problem solvers, but players in a big game of political chess,” Laffey writes. “They were more concerned with maintaining their grip on power than they were with the people who put them into their positions of power. In the end, the Republican Party lost both.”

Laffey attributes his 54 percent to 46 percent defeat to the NRSC’s media strategy and get-out-the-vote efforts on behalf of Chafee, who was probably the Senate’s most liberal Republican.

The NRSC’s achieved goal, Laffey writes, was to distract voters from the issues, distort the mayor’s positions and get Democrats and independents to vote for Chafee in the Republican primary.

Laffey notes that Republicans succeeded in driving attention to inconsequential issues such as:

• provocative newspaper columns he wrote in college;

• his 10-year-old son’s habit of wearing military fatigues on the campaign trail;

• an innocuous remark he made about feeling called by God to run for mayor;

• a letter he wrote to Cranston residents about the state of the city (the NRSC quickly charged Laffey with using taxpayer money for a campaign mailing);

• and a three-year-old voice mail message with a couple of profanities he left for a city councilman during a political dispute.

But perhaps the most outrageous of all, Laffey said in an interview, was an NRSC- produced mailer that accused Laffey, who opposes abortion rights, of having the same position on the issue as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

To put the situation in context: After Clinton gave a 2005 speech about her desire to reduce the number of abortions in the U.S. and deemed abortion a “tragic choice,” Laffey referred to that sentiment as “reasonable.”

The NRSC responded with a mailing that featured an unflattering picture of Clinton and tied Laffey to her voting record in support of abortion rights. “Steve Laffey suggests he is pro-life,” the ad charged, “but his words tell a different story.”

The irony, of course, was that Chafee was a well-known supporter of abortion rights and was endorsed by pro-abortion-rights groups.

“To think that Elizabeth Dole authorized this when she knew darn well … that she would actually wake up and know this was being produced, really speaks to the NRSC’s thinking,” Laffey said in the interview. “They know it’s a lie. It’s not even a twist of the truth or accentuating one little area. It’s a baldfaced lie.

“The person she’s referring to when she’s talking about radical views on abortion is Lincoln Chafee,” he said.

Laffey also discusses in the book the $400,000 NRSC get-out-the-vote effort to persuade people not likely to normally vote in a Republican primary to vote for Chafee.

“The NRSC had only two options to choose from: Destroy my character or hijack the Republican primary,” he writes. “In the end, Liddy Dole liked both options so much she saw no reason to choose between them.”

Laffey believes Republicans continue to pay for the sheer political calculation that led to his defeat.

“People have stopped giving money to the Republican campaign committees,” he said. “What did I see the other day — Congressional Democrats are outraising Republicans 10-1? And it’s 4-1 at the Senate level?

“I couldn’t even read all the e-mails I got from the grass-roots people who gave me $50, $75,” he added. “They had a contract with the Republican Party and it got violated, and they said, ‘Screw it.’”

Laffey said he may run for Rhode Island’s open gubernatorial seat in 2010. He said he didn’t take any pleasure from Chafee’s eventual 53 percent to 46 percent loss to now-Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) in the general election, but he ridiculed Chafee’s announcement last month that he was no longer a Republican.

“I would have been able to go after Sheldon Whitehouse in a way the Chafee campaign never did,” Laffey said. “Very clearly it would have been a different campaign, but one person who wasn’t going to beat Whitehouse was the faux Democrat.

“The great difference between myself and Linc Chafee,” he added, “is he left the party and I wrote a book about how to put the party back in power.”