Chafee-Laffey race gets serious with days to go

RNC-trained operatives canvass state for Chafee

Thursday, September 7, 2006

There is no clear leader in the Republican Senate primary race between Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey and incumbent Sen. Lincoln Chafee ’75. Now, with five days remaining before the primary election, both candidates are pulling out all the stops.

Republican political operatives from around the country are sending representatives to Rhode Island to drudge up support for embattled incumbent Chafee, according to Jennifer Duffy, managing editor of the Cook Political Report and a Rhode Island native.

Canvassers trained by the Republican National Committee have converged to enact what Duffy called a secret political strategy to convince Rhode Islanders to vote for Chafee up until 72 hours before election booths open. Duffy said part of the reason Republicans picked up several Senate seats in 2002 and President George W. Bush won Ohio in the 2004 election.

The potential Rhode Island’s Senate race has to change control of the U.S. Senate has brought a national magnifying glass to Rhode Island politics. With only a five-seat majority, Senate Republicans have put aside questions of Chafee’s loyalty to the party and singled out Rhode Island as a seat they must retain.

If Chafee loses the Republican primary to Laffey, Democratic Senate primary candidate and favorite Sheldon Whitehouse will probably win the general election, and Democrats will pick up their first Senate seat, Duffy said.

Whitehouse faces far weaker opposition in the Democratic primary than Chafee faces in Laffey. He is running against two comparatively poorly funded candidates: former marine Carl Sheeler and electrical engineer and activist Christopher Young, who is also challenging current Mayor David Cicilline ’83 in the Democratic primary.

Chafee has a much better chance against Whitehouse than Laffey, according to a Rasmussen Reports poll of 500 likely voters conducted Aug. 23. If Chafee wins the primary, Whitehouse leads Chafee among voters 44 to 42 percent. If Laffey wins the primary, Whitehouse leads Laffey 58 to 31 percent.

The turnout of the Republican primary is more difficult to forecast. An Aug. 31 Rhode Island College poll of 363 likely Republican primary voters found Laffey leading Chafee 51 to 34 percent, while a poll released shortly afterward by National Republican Senatorial Committee showed Chafee leading Laffey 53 to 39 percent.

Polling for a primary election in Rhode Island is difficult because of unpredictable participation of disaffiliated Democratic and unaffiliated voters.

“(For) polling in the primaries, there is a small sample and there are not many Republicans,” said Wendy Schiller, associate professor of political science. “You don’t know who is going to turn out. We have the idea that people who are more agitated will turn out in larger numbers, but we don’t know.”

Ultimately, the turnout of core Republican voters and disaffiliated Democratic voters on Sept. 12 will determine if Chafee overcomes Laffey’s challenge.

In April, Chafee told The Herald he “definitely (needs) as many unaffiliated voters as (he) can get.”

Schiller questioned Chafee’s reliance on disaffiliated Democrats and unaffiliated voters. She said core Republican voters are the reliable primary voters.

“A lot of Democrats who said they would vote in the Republican primary, unaffiliated voters, have to think strategically. We know that Laffey will lose against Whitehouse – from a purely strategic partisan perspective, they should stay home,” Schiller added.

Laffey’s campaign is largely unconcerned with voter turnout, said Nachama Soloveichik, Laffey’s press secretary.

“Unlike Senator Chafee or the pundits … high turnout or low turnout, we are confident we will win in the end,” Soloveichik said. “We go door-to-door. We mail people mailers. We have full confidence that our support will come out in droves,” she added.

Chafee’s campaign could not be reached for comment.Chafee campaign outspends Laffey, has less cash on hand

Chafee’s initial fundraising advantage over Laffey has leveled off.

Chafee has outspent Laffey so far by $1.67 million, but Laffey has more money on hand – $626,000 to Chafee’s $442,000 – and has raised $25,000 more than the incumbent senator over the past month, according to the Providence Journal. Still, either candidate could dip into some of his personal wealth if he runs short before the primary.

Despite substantial financial support for Chafee from Republicans around the country, some have continued to question the senator’s stance on many issues, labeling him a RINO – Republican in Name Only.

Liberal challenger and millionaire Ned Lamont’s victory over incumbent senator Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., in Connecticut’s August primary was heralded as an example of anti-incumbency feelings in American politics.

Duffy disagreed with those who perceive an anti-incumbency trend.

“I don’t see it as much as anti-incumbency – I see it as the extreme wings of parties sort of declaring war on those parties’ moderates,” she said. “If there is an anti-incumbency trend in the general election, that will greatly hurt the Republicans.”

In Rhode Island, angry partisans may help Laffey, who prides himself on being further right than the centrist Chafee.

Schiller said the similarity between Chafee and Lieberman is not their centrist politics but their disconnectedness from voters.

“The incumbent Republicans who survive have established the personal loyalty (with their constituents) that you need when your party’s president is not popular,” she said. “(Chafee) can not do it. He has not connected (with voters).”

Rhode Island’s Republican candidates are in a similar position to other Republican candidates across the country who are shying away from President George W. Bush, whose disapproval rating was 55 percent as of last week, according to a CNN poll.

Chafee separated himself from Bush early on by opposing the president’s tax cuts, voting against the war in Iraq and choosing to write in Bush’s father on his ballot in the 2004 presidential election.

But his separation from Bush is not as clear-cut as it might appear: Chafee has personally contributed to the embattled re-election bid of Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn., who in a Sept. 3 debate said he thinks Bush has been “a terrific president.”

In addition, Laura Bush attended a Chafee fundraiser over the summer at the Biltmore Hotel downtown. Republican candidates across the country have sought her out for her fundraising talent and approval rating that has consistently stayed twice that of her husband’s.

Laffey, who does not have the support of the state or national Republican parties, has maneuvered farther from Bush’s side. He has called for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. When asked in a radio debate whether he supports the president, Laffey said “No, I’m with the people.”

Despite the deep ideological rift between Chafee and many Republicans, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has spent $376,000 to air TV ads bashing Laffey during the three weeks leading up to the primary. The NRSC also spent $181,587 on a direct mail campaign assailing Laffey’s record as mayor of Cranston, according to the Providence Journal.

Chafee has also received support from the moderately conservative political action committee Republican Main Street Partnership. Its first and only television advertisement in support of Chafee first aired this week. The spot questions Laffey’s credibility and professional history, ending with the words, “Integrity still counts.”

Chafee was criticized last week for an advertisement paid for and produced on behalf of the NRSC that berated Laffey for accepting Mexican consular identification cards from Cranston residents applying for driver’s licenses, entering government buildings and boarding planes, drawing a parallel between immigrants and terrorists.

The NRSC’s ad was pulled and replaced with a spot questioning Laffey’s fitness for the Senate, Schiller said.

“His ego is the size of the state of Texas,” one Rhode Island resident complains of Laffey in the advertisement.

Laffey’s campaign has been buoyed by his endorsement by the Club For Growth, an out-of-state anti-tax and limited government political action committee.

“Without the Club I don’t think (Laffey) would have gotten as far as he has gotten,” Duffy said. “A lot of the consultants working for him have worked for the Club in the past.”

The fiscally conservative special interest group has already spent $522,945 on television advertising on Laffey’s behalf, according to the Providence Journal.

Laffey garnered recent media attention for homophobic articles he wrote as an undergraduate at Bowdoin College in the Bowdoin Patriot, a paper published by the school’s College Republicans.

“All the homosexuals I’ve seen are sickly and decrepit, their eyes devoid of life,” Laffey wrote in one of his articles.

Schiller said Laffey’s past comments may affect him if he makes it to the general election, but will not necessarily affect him in the Republican primary.

“Since we don’t know how the core Republicans will feel about this in Rhode Island, there is no way to speculate about it,” she said.

Despite a general lack of media attention surrounding the Democratic Senate primary, Whitehouse has raised over $4 million – more than any other Rhode Island senatorial candidate. Former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Barak Obama, D-Ill., have held fundraisers for Whitehouse in recent months. The $1.5 million the campaign has on hand as of late August has allowed Whitehouse to launch an advertising campaign as yet unmatched by his opponents.

Sheeler has $292,000 on hand as of the same time. Young is not accepting campaign contributions.

Despite having far less money, Sheeler has made a splash. He plastered the message “Be patriotic, Impeach Bush” on a billboard along I-95 for all commuters to see and told The Herald he has chosen to focus on what he considers to be the core of Democratic Rhode Island voters – those over 50.

“The majority of folks at elderly homes recognized who I am,” Sheeler said.

Whitehouse has refused invitations to numerous forums to debate Sheeler and Young, except for a half-hour segment aired on RIPBS in which candidates were not able to debate at length or convey their campaign messages to voters.

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