September 11, 2005

Laffey vs. Chafee: Ideals or Power?

Marc Comtois

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.

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What has Laffey done to build the Republican Party in RI? Has he recruited strong candidates for the RI House and Senate (and helped them with organization and fundraising)? Where are the other local Republicans whom he has helped elect?

He may have been doing all these things and I just don't know about it, but I think he's pretty much been working exclusively to advance his own personal ambition. And I don't hear him saying a whole lot about what it means to be a Republican, or how he identifies himself as a conservative.

There's nothing wrong with a candidate who advances his own career goals, but don't confuse Laffey's opposition to Chafee with some great effort on his part to build a conservative Republican base in RI. Here's betting that two words you won't hear during any of his paid media spots in this campaign are "Republican" or "conservative."

Posted by: brassband at September 11, 2005 9:45 PM

Laffey stands for political expedience, so please don't suggest that he will create some sort of stateside "revolution" when he can't even get control of a city council in Cranston following the greatest city financial crisis in state history.

A few predictions:

1. Laffey will run from the term "conservative" in the same way that liberals run away from the term "liberal" because they are ashamed.

2. Laffey will launch attacks on the Republican Party for the sake of political expediency. In doing so, the now "Independent (r)epublican" Laffey will attempt to garner the support of non-partisan Rhode Islanders, while at the same time seeking to keep the benefits of being a Republican. Many will see through this attempt, many will not.

3. Laffey will criticize "pork" projects, but these "pork" projects will all be in other states. He'll say nothing about the TF Greene airport, funds for rebuilding I-195, the Sakonnet River Bridge or any other "pork" project where RI citizens have benefited. He'll hope RI voters won't see what he is doing, but I think RI voters will be smarter.

4. Laffey will say that he was "forced" to raise property taxes in Cranston because, gosh darn it, he had no choice and was forced to do so.

5. Unlike Governor Carcieri who spoke positively about running Catholic Relief Services in Jamaica, Laffey will down play religion throughout the election for the sake of political expediency. He'll avoid answering questions on tough moral issues such as abortion or gay marriage that might hurt him in a hypothetical general election.

This is a choice for the future of Rhode Island Republicans. It is a choice between continuing to have a role in national affairs versus sinking into the abyss of true oblivion.

Posted by: Anthony at September 11, 2005 10:34 PM


Very well said.

As I said in another recent post, after watching what has occurred in Congress since the "Republicans" took control in 1994, I've concluded that first and foremost we need a Republican Party that is comprised of a majority of Republicans ... even if that means minority status in Congress.

The current Democrat minority is cohesively and determinedly liberal - and theirs is the cause that is advancing, in spite of their minority status.

The "moderate" Republicans merely sabotage the Party, which overall no longer really stands for much of anything. In that sense, the RIGOP may have inadvertently served as the precursor to what has now occurred with the national GOP.

Perhaps a Chafee electoral demise can serve as a "Gaspee moment" of conservatives beginning to influence, if not dominate, the RIGOP ... and that in turn might perhaps be a precursor for conservatives someday "retaking" the national GOP?

Posted by: Tom W at September 12, 2005 1:50 AM

Tom, you said:

"The current Democrat minority is cohesively and determinedly liberal - and theirs is the cause that is advancing, in spite of their minority status."

Cohesive and determined wouldnt not be the two words I'd describe the national Democratic party. Though, they do seem better organized than in '04, I'm still trying to figure out what this party actually stands for rather than what they are against. I think the Dems for far too long have defined themselves as reactors versus actors on the national stage. This is most evident in the wake of Katrina as they seek to utilize the missteps within government to further their party. But, I'm not the only one to think that they may have already overplayed their hand.

On another note, I completely agree with Marc here. I was speaking with a democrat legislator about Laffey entering the race. This legislator thought that I should back Chafee b/c Laffey could never win. I disagree. Whatever you may think of Laffey, he's proven he has an acute political acumen and flair for the dramatics, both things and especially the latter, Rhode Islanders admire (read:Buddy Cianci). And those two things make him an attractive and viable candidate despite your personal like or dislike of him.

RIGOP needs more true conservatives, for sure. And it also needs an injection of political sense. I think Laffey brings both and should provide a stern test for Linc.

Posted by: don roach at September 12, 2005 4:45 AM


While the Democrats in public are flailing, and even acting almost as parodies of themselves, their agenda continues to advance:

Government - federal and below - grows larger, every single year;

The Republicans are so cowed by the Democrats that they no longer even pay lip service to small government, or even slowing the rate of growth;

Republicans (again cowed) wouldn't line up behind President Bush on Social Security reform, preferring to (continue) avoiding the subject altogether;

Republicans (again cowed) won't address illegal immigration.

The (again cowed) Republicans enacted the "prescription drug benefit" / major increase in the welfare state.

If the Democrats appear to be in disarray, it's because the Republicans have taken "triangulation" from Clinton's playbook - enacting the Democrat / liberal agenda so that the Dems / liberals can't use it against Republicans. In this, the Republicans have had electoral success - which is why the Democrats are sputtering and fuming - they're losing on the electoral front, but not on the tangible agenda front.

The Republican Party has betrayed what it is supposed to stand for.

Posted by: Tom W at September 12, 2005 7:40 AM

Brassband and Anthony: In your disdain for Laffey, you miss my point. Not all who oppose Chaffee do so because they love Steve Laffey. I am less a Laffey-backer than one who is frustrated by the status quo in the RIGOP. I am more a conservative than a Republican, which I thought I had explained in the piece. For the most part, the RIGOP seems more moderate than Republican. Laffey certainly does things that bother me too, but looking past his foibles, I see support for him as support for change. Thus, looking past Laffey's personality quirks, it should be rather obvious fact that he is the more conservative of our two choices for Senator.

I certainly didn't mean to imply that Laffey was a party builder. (I'd also be wary of criticizing his efforts, meager though they may be, over the last couple of years within the context of what the entire State RIGOP has managed to do.) As far as this issue, though, you again miss point. I'm not looking to Laffey for party building, I'm looking at the race as referendum on what RI Republicans--the rank and file--want their party to be. If Chafee wins, they favor the status quo, if Laffey wins, then they don't.

Anthony, if your predictions come true, then he will be criticized by me and others on this sight when he starts "running away" from being conservative. Remember, this is a site comprised of conservative writers who vote on conservative ideals, no matter who holds them.

Finally, Anthony's comment that, "This is a choice for the future of Rhode Island Republicans. It is a choice between continuing to have a role in national affairs versus sinking into the abyss of true oblivion" indicates his priorities in the matter. That is fine, and that is what I'm talking about as far as the choice that faces RIGOP.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at September 12, 2005 7:57 AM


About point 2: You could changed "Laffey" to "Chafee" in this paragraph and it remains equally as accurate.

About point 4: Yes, Laffey did raise taxes, but doesn't this make him the same sort of fiscal conservative that Chafee claims to be? Also, what were the alternatives for Cranston? Third world style land seizures? Invade Coventry? Fire all non-union employees?

About point 5: Chafee is very, very far to the left on abortion, much further to the left than he has to be to be viable in RI (remember we elected a pro-life congressman in this state). If Laffey says that Congress should pass a partial birth abortion ban and parental notification laws, he can differentiate himself from Chafee by taking views many, maybe most, Rhode Islanders support.

Posted by: Andrew at September 12, 2005 8:18 AM

A few brief comments in response:

1. Laffey and Cianci: Most Rhode Islanders did not like Cianci's theatrics. Recall that while Cianci was very popular in his own city of Providence, he failed miserably when he tried to run for Governor. Voters outside of Providence found him overbearing and I suspect Laffey will face some of the same issues faced by Cianci in his statewide election.

2. Tax Increases: I'm not saying a tax increase was not necessary, but Laffey never coupled the tax increases with growth in the economic development arena. While Fidelity was creating jobs in Smithfield and G-tech was moving jobs to Providence, Cranston's attempt at economic development were lackluster at best. The focus was always on the short-term. Long-term success involves growing the tax base, not diminshing the tax base and increasing taxes on the smaller tax base.

3. Partial-birth abortion: I agree. I think most Rhode Islanders oppose partial-birth abortion. Even Patrick Kennedy opposes it. I'm not saying that Laffey can't gain some points here, I just think he'll try to avoid the discussion.

4. Overall: There is no question that Steve Laffey is more conservative. Chafee is not a conservative at all. I'm voting for him because I think we need him to keep the Senate in Republican hands. For the past 20 years, it has been the case that the northeast is relied upon to get the majority and the south and west are relied upon to drive the agenda. It wasn't that long ago that the Democrats were controlling the Senate and look at where that got us.

There is also no question that voting for Steve Laffey will send a message and if that's a voter's goal he or she should vote for Laffey. I'm just more concerned with paying less in taxes, getting a Supreme Court majority and having a strong defense than I am about sending a "message" to the small group of voters represented by the RI GOP. In a state of over a million people there are only 58,000 registered Republicans.

A Republican voting for Steve Laffey is similar to a Democrat voting for Ralph Nader. The vote will indeed send a message, but that's about all it will accomplish. In the process, it will remove RI Republicans, conservative and liberal, from having any substantive input into policy matters. Ultimately, this is why the Democrats were so happy to see Laffey run.

Posted by: Anthony at September 12, 2005 3:19 PM

I appreciate your POV. I'm not as convinced as you, however, that Chafee is all that important to maintaining a Republican (thus more conservative) majority on the national level. Even if he is, he hasn't exactly shown a desire to "toe the line" as it were. Thus, I think it worth considering the Laffey option as it will put State RIGOP leaders on notice. I also am practical regarding the GOP voter registration rolls in RI. I just think it's time to give conservatism a shot in this state. Maybe it'll flame out, but it really hasn't been tried.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at September 12, 2005 3:32 PM

I have a suggestion for those conservatives who want to "make a statement" by voting for Laffey.

How about "making a statement" by running for State Rep. or State Senate, or local Council or School Committee, instead?

Posted by: brassband at September 13, 2005 4:36 PM

Brassband, Good suggestion! I hope some do and that they get the support of the RIGOP in the process!

Posted by: Marc Comtois at September 13, 2005 7:30 PM