October 4, 2005

National GOP Going After Laffey III

Carroll Andrew Morse

The National Republican Senate Committee has debuted the first television ad against Steve Laffey. It is a negative ad, a personal attack on Laffey. It is unusual for an incumbent -- almost unheard of for a popular incumbent -- to go negative this early.

A popular incumbent generally prefers to pretend that his opponent doesn’t exist. The early ad blitz from an incumbent, or from a presumptive frontrunner for an open seat, is usually a fuzzy, feel-good campaign -- lots of bright colors and images of the candidate smiling and interacting with the people. The candidate wants to build positive name recognition, define himself as the good guy in the race, and start building support amongst voters who pay a little attention to politics, but are not political junkies. Also, an incumbent (or early frontrunner) generally doesn’t want to help his challenger gain any name recognition of his own.

Three years ago, Don Carcieri very effectively used warm and fuzzy advertising to begin his successful gubernatorial campaign. Patrick Kennedy has done the same with his Nuala Pell ads, creating a reservoir of good feeling that a challenger like Dave Rogers finds difficult to overcome.

The choice to go negative right away tells us that the Chafee people think they’re already in trouble. They don’t believe that seeing the image of Lincoln Chafee will make people want to vote for Lincoln Chafee. They don’t think that talking about the things that Chafee has done as Senator is going to sway many voters in his favor. It is clear that the Chafee campaign, or at least Chafee’s hired guns, don’t believe their own rhetoric about Lincoln Chafee as the right fit for Rhode Island. If they did, they would want to talk about their own candidate at this stage in the campaign.