Stephen Laffey tries to knock off the most liberal Republican senator
JOHN J. MILLER
Halfway up the steep incline of Parker Street, Stephen Laffey jokes, “We should have started at the top and worked our way down.” It’s a hot July morning here in Lincoln. A hundred feet ahead, the driver of a silver pickup truck announces through a bullhorn that Laffey is “the only U.S. Senate candidate who’s campaigning on Parker Street.” Several other volunteers follow on foot, ringing doorbells and searching for homeowners who want to meet Laffey, a Republican who is challenging Sen. Lincoln Chafee in the state’s GOP primary. Quite a few of them come out to shake hands. “Someone should have checked a contour map,” says Laffey with a smile.
Then again, Laffey didn’t bother to check a contour map when he decided to take on a sitting senator in a primary — an uphill battle if there ever was one. Perhaps he didn’t need to. Recent polls suggest that Laffey, who is the mayor of Cranston, just might win the Republican nomination on September 12. In May, a survey of likely GOP primary voters found him to have a slight lead over Chafee, 46 to 44 percent. “We’re going to crush him,” boasts Laffey. But whatever the margin, a Laffey victory would surely be the year’s biggest political surprise for Republicans.
For conservatives, the surprise wouldn’t be merely pleasant, but positively exhilarating — almost the equivalent of what they would have felt two years ago if former congressman Pat Toomey had defeated Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania’s GOP primary. That’s because Chafee might be the most irritating Republican in the Senate. The problem isn’t simply that he opposes tax cuts, supports partial-birth abortion, and believes that enemy combatants should enjoy habeas corpus rights. After all, somebody has to be the most liberal Republican senator, and chances are it will be a person who hails from a true-blue state like Rhode Island.
What makes Chafee stand out even among figures such as senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe — liberal Republicans from Maine — is his sheer flamboyance. In 2004, he announced that he wasn’t voting for President Bush’s reelection. In what he called a “symbolic protest,” he wrote in the name of Bush’s father on his ballot. He also threatened to switch parties, something he may very well do if Democrats can welcome him into a Senate majority. Last January, Chafee was the only Republican to oppose the confirmation of Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito. And in March, he described Sen. Russ Feingold’s censure resolution to condemn Bush as “positive,” because it helped put the issue of wiretapping “into the public awareness.” (When these comments achieved their own public awareness — or, more accurately, their own notoriety — he added that he opposed censure.)
A close look at Chafee’s congressional record suggests that the senator would fit comfortably within the Democratic fold: The American Conservative Union gives Chafee a lifetime rating of 37 out of a possible 100. This is not only the worst performance in the GOP, but it actually places Chafee to the left of Democratic senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Chafee’s rating for 2005 is a dismal 12, which is precisely the score of Sen. Hillary Clinton. Only 24 senators received a lower score. Twenty-three of them are liberal Democrats, and the other is Jim Jeffords, the “independent” who caucuses with the Democrats. Even Feingold, who is actively courting his party’s left wing in anticipation of a presidential run, was rated a point better than Chafee. So it’s no wonder that a lot of rank-and-file Republicans have run out of patience with Rhode Island’s junior senator.
A DOG NAMED MILTON
In the 44-year-old Laffey, the GOP has a credible alternative to Chafee. He’s the twice-elected mayor of Cranston, a small city thick with Reagan Democrats. Laffey grew up in this working-class town and learned about Milton Friedman from a high-school teacher. (Today, that teacher is a campaign volunteer and Laffey owns a dog named Milton.) Laffey became the first member of his family to go to college, at Bowdoin and then Harvard Business School. He spent time on Wall Street before taking a job with Morgan Keegan, an investment bank in Memphis, where he became president at the age of 38. When the company was sold in 2001, he decided to move back to his hometown and open his own firm.
With his family in Tennessee, Laffey went to Rhode Island to look for a house. Before he found one, he read a newspaper story about Cranston’s financial mess. So he went over to City Hall and asked to see the audits. “They said they didn’t have any,” says Laffey. “I called my wife in Memphis and told her I was running for mayor.” He hadn’t run for anything since his student-council days in high school and college. A year later, after spending $270,000 of his own money — a lot of cash for a Cranston mayoral race — he was elected.
When Laffey took the oath of office, Cranston was on the brink of bankruptcy. The new mayor cut fat from the budget and tangled with the local unions. Priorities were so skewed that Cranston’s school-crossing guards — a unionized bunch — were paid the equivalent of $129 per hour. The ensuing fight made news throughout the state. “Ronald Reagan had air-traffic controllers,” says Laffey. “I had crossing guards.” Today, Cranston’s crossing guards are still unionized, but they make only $16 per hour. This well-publicized triumph, which according to Laffey saves Cranston about half a million dollars annually, has served as one of the mayor’s calling cards as he campaigns around Rhode Island.
But Laffey’s best medicine for Cranston could also be bitter: He hiked property taxes three times. “I had no choice,” he says. “I inherited a faulty budget full of unfunded pensions, and if I hadn’t raised taxes the city would have fallen into receivership and a judge or the state would have done it.” (Cranston’s current budget, which took effect in June, actually includes a small tax cut.)
Even though Chafee himself is no tax-cutter — he has voted against extending the life of federal tax reductions, which is effectively a tax increase — he has run campaign ads that try to paint Laffey as a tax-happy pol. Yet Laffey has still managed to win a thumbs-up from anti-tax groups. “Normally, we won’t support anybody who has a history of raising taxes,” says Toomey, who now leads the Club for Growth. “But we studied the circumstances in Cranston, and Laffey’s hands really were tied.” Arguably more important than what Laffey has done in the past is the commitment he has made for the future: He has signed the Americans for Tax Reform pledge, promising not to support any tax increases in the Senate. Chafee hasn’t followed this lead. Moreover, Steve Forbes — no friend of higher taxes — will host a fundraiser for Laffey on July 24 in Manhattan.
On other issues, Laffey is a mainstream conservative: He rails against runaway federal spending, backs the president on Iraq, supports free trade, believes Congress should pass an enforcement-only immigration bill, and thinks the flag deserves the protection of a constitutional amendment. He’s also pro-life, which is hardly a kiss of death in Rhode Island: Gov. Donald Carcieri, a Republican, and Rep. James Langevin, a Democrat, are both anti-abortion.
On energy policy, Laffey departs from conservative orthodoxy. His first campaign commercial, which aired last fall, was a piece of populism filmed at a gas station: The mayor slammed “big oil companies” and “special interests” for high prices. He wants to increase federal fuel-efficiency standards for cars, and use the tax code to promote alternative sources of energy. “We should have solar panels on every roof,” he says. He’s against drilling in the Arctic and favors offshore wind farms.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, under the direction of Sen. Elizabeth Dole, has criticized Laffey for this minor apostasy — as if it somehow excuses Chafee’s more complete version. Last fall, as Laffey was going on the air with his first TV commercials, the NRSC struck with at least $150,000 in ads against Laffey. Only in Montana, where Republican senator Conrad Burns faces a difficult reelection, has the NRSC spent more — and there, at least, it was attacking a Democrat. “Rather than propping up Chafee against a credible conservative, wouldn’t this anti-Laffey cash have been better spent on helping other vulnerable Republican senators, such as Jim Talent of Missouri?” asks Jon Lerner, a consultant with Laffey’s campaign. On July 10, the NRSC filed a complaint against Laffey with the Federal Election Commission, alleging that he had used Cranston city resources to promote his U.S. Senate candidacy. No one can think of a precedent for a party committee using the FEC to harass one of its own.
The Republican establishment’s hostility to Laffey stands in stark contrast to the behavior of Democrats in Connecticut’s primary, where Sen. Joe Lieberman faces an unexpectedly strong challenge from antiwar candidate Ned Lamont. Party heavyweights such as Hillary Clinton and John Kerry have offered tepid support for Lieberman, indicating that they’ll switch to Lamont if he wins the nomination and Lieberman runs in the general as an independent. In Rhode Island, Laffey has promised to support Chafee if the senator gets the Republican nod, but Chafee has refused to say he’ll support Laffey.
COFFEE SHOPS AND WIENER JOINTS
Chafee is in fact counting on the support of Democrats to help him win the GOP nomination. This spring, his campaign mounted an effort to convince them to disaffiliate from their party, at least temporarily, in order to become eligible to vote in the Republican primary. More than 14,000 did so — a huge number in Rhode Island, where turnout probably won’t top 50,000 voters. If Chafee prevails on September 12, his victory over a conservative will have been underwritten by national Republican dollars and made possible by local Democratic ballots.
And if Laffey somehow manages to pull off an upset, it will come from having targeted Republican voters for an entire year and engaging in the retail politics of a tiny state whose total population is smaller than that of Dallas or San Diego. Last year, when I first interviewed Laffey, he said that he planned to visit “every coffee shop and wiener joint in Rhode Island.” By all appearances, he has done his best to keep pace. “Nobody will outwork me,” he said to a gathering of Republicans in Burrillville on July 7. The next day, as he walked around Lincoln in his trademark yellow shirt, Laffey bumped into an old schoolmate who had moved out of Cranston. “Only in Rhode Island,” he said, a few minutes later.
With Providence as its single media market, Rhode Island is amenable to a Laffey-style insurgency the way larger states are not. But are its voters simply too liberal for a conservative who wants to be a senator? Although Republicans can win statewide office — there hasn’t been a Democratic governor in more than a decade — Laffey faces long odds. Even if he accomplishes the difficult task of unseating an incumbent in the primary, he must go on to win a general election in a year that doesn’t favor Republicans. Indeed, a Brown University poll in June showed Sheldon Whitehouse, a former attorney general and the presumptive Democratic nominee, running far in front of Laffey, 55 to 25 percent. Against Chafee, Whitehouse led by just a point, 38 to 37 percent. And that’s what the GOP case for Chafee essentially boils down to: the belief that a spectacularly lousy Republican who enjoys a reasonable chance of winning is preferable to a promising young conservative who would have to pull off a political miracle.
But is that the right belief to hold? A Chafee victory would send a powerful message to other liberal Republicans: The party will be there for you when you really need it, even if you’re not there when it needs you. Laffey may face an uphill battle over the next few months, but one thing’s for sure about the GOP’s future with Chafee: It’s all downhill from here.