Chafee-Laffey Race Is Too Close to Call

WARWICK, R.I. — Like nearly all candidates in the final days of a campaign, Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey predicted today that he will win on Tuesday against Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R), his opponent for the Republican U.S. Senate primary.
That is no reason to believe him. Nor were the mostly positive responses he got from senior citizens this morning at the Warwick Mall. Chafee was once mayor of Warwick, but this is on the very western outskirts, closer to Cranston, and Laffey actually knew some of the old folks here personally.
And even if it is interesting, the fact that Laffey is already attacking the Democratic candidate, former Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse, is not necessarily an indication that he feels the race is his.
But here’s one small reason to believe Laffey, from an elderly gentleman in the mall who asked to remain unnamed: “If he beats Chafee, then Whitehouse will beat Laffey,” he said. “I like Whitehouse; he’s got a lot of common sense.”
For the most part, political reporters covering this race saw the 14,000 or so voters who disaffiliated from the Democratic Party this year as a boon for Chafee. Since disaffiliated voters can vote in either primary (they must then disaffiliate after the election to remain registered independents), the logic was that these voters would support the liberal Chafee over the more conservative Laffey. But few people counted on a Laffey-Whitehouse vote, which will be minor but perhaps considerable enough to cut into Chafee’s large advantage among independents. Even 1,000 votes will mean a lot in this big primary for little Rhode Island. The record turnout for a GOP primary, I am told, stands at about 40,000 votes.
Rhode Island, the bluest state of all 50, is 12 percent Republican by registration. There is a small contingent of conservatives here who despise Chafee for being a liberal, and they will support Laffey by a large margin just because he is not Chafee. But Laffey would never have had a chance to win the larger population of disaffiliated voters by running as the Pat Toomey of Rhode Island. Rather than emphasize his conservatism — which is far from unadulterated anyway — Laffey has campaigned as a populist. As he decries congressional pork and high gas prices, Laffey has offered here and there only the slightest wink to the Right. Anything more would likely go beyond the point of diminishing returns.
Chafee’s biggest problem is not his liberalism — Rhode Island is a liberal state — but his indecision and lack of message discipline. Rather than quickly take a Left-wing stand or come home to his party, he tends to waver and stall with indecision when a tough choice arises. This has caused him to display some very foolish and bizarre behavior, and if anything causes him to lose, that will be it.
Chafee voted for the confirmation of Chief Justice John Roberts, and against the very similar Justice Sam Alito (and that in a heavily Italian state). For months during 2004, Chafee went back and forth over whether or not he would vote for President Bush, his party’s nominee. In the end, he did not support Bush or Democrat John Kerry, but instead opted to write in the name of the President’s father. Even liberal columnists in the state frowned upon this song-and-dance, suggesting that Chafee was embarrassing the state. Previously, Chafee had dithered in public over whether he would switch parties — eventually he announced that he would not, but only after allowing several news cycles to pass in which observers could reflect on his cryptic comments.
Chafee’s latest Senate dance was featured below the fold of this morning’s Providence Journal, and enough people here had seen it that a few asked Laffey his opinion. The headline notes Chafee’s role in derailing a vote on UN Ambassador John Bolton‘s confirmation — the committee vote was put off yesterday without any immediate explanation. Considering the urgency of the situation in the Middle East, the week before the election is an odd time for this, and it confirms Chafee’s ambivalence, this time showing up in the question of U.S. foreign policy. Chafee also did himself no favors today with self-doubting remarks over one of the negative ads he ran against Laffey — one would expect that he could at least stand by his campaign’s decisions.
“I don’t think the guy knows where he stands on too many issues,” said William Valletta, who spoke briefly to Laffey this morning and pledged the mayor his vote. “I just don’t like the guy.”
It is impossible to tell from contradictory polls who will win on Tuesday, but along Route 5 through Warwick, Cranston, and Johnson, not a single Chafee sign is to be seen on public or private property. I still don’t know what they look like.