Sunday, August 21, 2005

Linc Chafee: "I've got a target on my back"

From today's Providence Journal:

Chafee, a moderate, knows he is in a vise -- not sufficiently liberal for Democrats, not enough of a conservative for Republicans who admire President Bush.
Polls suggest Chafee is beatable; a matchup against [Sheldon] Whitehouse showed Chafee ahead, 41 percent to 36 percent, with the rest undecided. It is never a good sign, say political experts, for an incumbent to be that far under 50 percent approaching an election year.
As a GOP moderate-to-liberal senator, Chafee is one of the last of a flock that once had a strong voice in the GOP.

Most of Washington's political establishment believes that Chafee is most vulnerable to a primary challenge from a conservative such as [Steve] Laffey, who has criticized Chafee since the 2004 Republican National Convention. This is due both to the nature of primaries and the challenge Laffey would pose.

To win a close general election, a candidate must convince voters who are among the least committed to politics and ideology -- the so-called swing voters -- to come to the polls.

Primary victories go to the candidate who attracts the most committed voters, those who follow politics and have strong opinions. Republican primaries in the state are notorious for low voter turnout; the modern record for a GOP primary is roughly 43,000, in the 1994 gubernatorial primary when Lincoln Almond defeated then-U.S. Rep. Ronald Machtley.

By contrast, the 2002 general election drew about 332,000 voters. About 660,000 voters are registered in Rhode Island.

This arithmetic makes Chafee vulnerable to a challenge from the right, says Jennifer Duffy, a Rhode Island native who follows Senate races for the Washington, D.C-based Cook Political Report.

"This race is waiting for Laffey; what he does has a huge impact," she said.
Earlier this month, Laffey sharply criticized Congress, citing the recent energy bill, which "contains huge giveaways to oil companies and agricultural giants," the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which he supports but which "did nothing to curb obscene, sweetheart deals for the sugar industry," and the transportation bill, so fat with pork "that it would make Porky Pig blush."

"Clearly Washington is broken," Laffey stated, in a news release, criticizing both parties and feeding suspicions he might run as an independent.

Chafee is unabashed about delivering money from what he called the "pork committee" -- Environment and Public Works.

"My leadership and the chairman of the committee just kept pushing money at me," he said.

It's not a bad overview article for the Projo. Of course, like most others, they insist on outlining the candidates from both parties with cartoon-character sophistication, and seem more than happy to perpetuate the preposterous myth that Chafee is some sort of moderate-to-liberal type.

But they're right about Laffey being an important wildcard. As the article makes clear, he's emerging as the fair-haired boy for the Club for Growth during the upcoming election cycle, and the CoG is making noise about running one of their characteristically tone-deaf campaigns in an effort to take down one RINO and scare the hell out of the others. And, while the article notes that the modern record for turnout in a statewide Republican primary in RI is 43,000, the last contested Republican primary for a big office drew just under 26,000 to the polls (Carcieri-Bennett for Gov in '02). This race would certainly turn out all the reactionary lunatics from not-Providence who seem to have little else to do except write rabid letters to the Projo's editors. So Lil' Stevie could do it because of/in spite of CoG support, which will fill his coffers but annoy the hell out of most voters in both parties.

And his odds would improve if he got some help from the Democrats. Rhode Island primaries are formally "closed" insofar as Dems can't vote in Republican primaries and vice-versa, but "unaffiliated" voters are free to vote in either. "Disaffiliate" within 90 days of the Republican primary, vote to knock Chafee out of the race, and then feel free to vote for SheldonWhitehouseMattBrownSomebodyElse in the general election.

Quite honestly, this might be the best chance to get the seat. His soft numbers notwithstanding, Chafee v. Whitehouse or Brown head-to-head in the general election is Chafee's to lose (all bets are off if Laffey stops taking his meds and decides to run as an independent). I suspect that many of the things Chafee does to enrage those of us in the liberal blogosphere--voting to confirm Janice Rogers Brown, for example--won't resonate and prove to be viable campaign issues "on the ground" once things heat up. Chafee, whose name alone is a powerful brand in RI, will point to a handful of contrarian votes against the administration to innoculate himself against efforts by the Dems to make him Dubya's Siamese twin. He'll also play up his ability as a member of the majority party to bring money home from D.C.--no small matter, as RI is one of the few blue states that takes from the feds more than it gives. Unless the economy tanks completely or something high-profile-horrible happens in Iraq during the election season, the Democratic candidate will have to find something to go on besides "I have lots of great ideas" or "54-46 is better than 55-45," and it's not yet clear what that something else will be.


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