Laffey vs. Chafee: Ideals or Power?
The senate race between Laffey and Chafee offers a rare opportunity for the Rhode Island Republican party–both its leadership and, especially, the rank and file–to define itself. For decades now, the “traditional” (elected) Rhode Island Republican seems to almost pathologically belong to the “can’t-we-just-get-along” club. They smile and wink and get gut-punched by the Democrats to which they respond with an “aw, shucks” and keep smiling and winking. The leadership of the RIGOP long ago seems to have given up hope of real, statewide political strength. Instead, they too-often seem happy to continue playing their role of Washington General-like foil to the dominant, Globe-trotting Democrats.
With this sort of mindset, it must seem to them well-nigh a miracle that they have managed to maintain a U.S. Senate seat. They’ve played it safe and won a small piece of the pie. Now is not the time to risk it! Instead, they want to trot out the prevent defense and hold on to what they’ve got. Despite the perception, this tactic actually does work in football, but it often fails in politics.
Why don’t they support Steve Laffey’s candidacy? Partly it’s because he’s not one of “them”, the establishment RIGOP, the whole handful of them who have led Republicans to the Governorship and not much else. (As an aside, we shouldn’t forget that Gov. Carcieri was the outsider when he ran for, and won, the Governorship). Partly its because Steve Laffey seems like too big of a risk and they don’t think he can win statewide. I have also expressed some of those same doubts (here and here). A smidgen of dislike can also be thrown in as many probably just don’t like the Steve Laffey “act.” But I think the largest reason as to why the don’t support Steve Laffey is because he isn’t their kind of Republican.
Nationwide, conservatives generally support Republicans because, on a broad range of issues, Republicans tilt towards those values held by the average conservative voter. Much of the leadership of the RIGOP does not hold conservative ideals (if Sen. Chafee’s record is any indication of what a traditional RI Republican believes) and seems to routinely attempt to distance itself from the conservatives within its ranks.
For instance, in a recent airing of PBS-RI’s “Lively Experiment”, former Lt. Governor stated that Laffey was drawing support from the “extreme right-wing” (I saw it myself, no link to a transcript, but I’ll keep looking). Does that sound like a Republican amenable to party-building and fraternity by embracing the entire spectrum of Republican voters? And in the coming months, don’t let them fool you with the soon-to-be oft-parrotted reference to Laffey’s property tax hike in Cranston, either. Sen. Chafee is one of those Washington baseline budgeteers who thinks its a matter of course that tax-cuts have to be “paid for” and regularly receives mostly poor grades on tax issues.
It is ironic that 50%-Linc will be supported by the conservative Bush Administration that think it needs him to maintain the Republican Senate majority. They will do everything to keep Chafee in, which will include supporting a candidate against the wishes of their conservative (albeit relatively small) base in the Ocean State. It is the ultimate example of being on the wrong side of the ledger in political economics. Thus, RI conservatives have been left with a choice: standing up for political ideals in their state or striving to maintain national political power at their own continued expense?
Right now, many believe that a vote for the candidate with more conservative ideals, Steve Laffey, could result in a two-fold loss of Republican power: Rhode Island Republicans could lose a national voice and the National GOP could lose the U.S. Senate altogether. Yes, it is possible Steve Laffey could win in a statewide election, especially if he continues to emphasize the “populist” (as he did the other night) in his populist/conservative message. Nonetheless, even if he doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in Hades, Rhode Island conservatives will have been heard by bucking the establishment and sending Laffey on to the general election. Many ask: But what would be the purpose? The answer is: to find out who or what the RIGOP is going to be.
In the end, sending Laffey past Chafee to face a Democrat challenger may be nothing more than a romantically noble, and ultimately doomed, cause. Perhaps Rhode Island Republicans won’t see another of their own in the national delegation for decades. Yet, despite all of this and whatever the outcome may be, RICons will have made a statement about what they think the RIGOP should be and they will have forced the “establishment” to do the same.
The RIGOP needs to be shaken up and to find a direction. The political tactics used by the RIGOP over the last few years have not worked, if they existed at all. Wimpering under the table for scraps doesn’t make a party stronger–it barely keeps it alive and gives it false hope for more of the same. This sort of milquetoast Republicanism has failed in Rhode Island.
If nothing else, I hope that the coming debates will help RI Republicans decide the kind of party they want. I hope, like me, they will see that it’s time to heed a paraphrase of Robert Frost’s advice and take the road never traveled: the one that leads to a RI Republican party with conservative ideals at its core.