Chafee Could See Challenges From Left and Right

Posted November 15, 2004 at 5:09pm

Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) has come back to the GOP fold just in time to ramp up for his 2006 re-election bid, but Democrats are not ready to give him a pass simply because the legacy Republican sometimes bucks his party.

Chafee was appointed to the seat his father held for 23 years when Sen. John Chafee (R) died in office in October 1999. The younger Chafee then went on to win the seat, which his father was planning to vacate, in 2000.

Since then, he has broken with his party time and again, culminating in his decision to write in George H.W. Bush for president Nov. 2 because he did not want to vote for President Bush.

Chafee considered switching parties and has been wooed by Democrats for years but backed away from his flirtation last week after prominent Republicans and Senate leaders asked him not to bolt.

“My Republican colleagues have let me know they want me in their caucus,” Chafee told The Associated Press last week. “They value the voice I bring, and they have made it very clear to me that they respect and want that voice to be heard.”

Nonetheless, political observers believe that Chafee can expect a primary challenge from the right and a strong attack from Democrats who see a pickup opportunity in Rhode Island.

Chafee is a “very decent, honest guy who is a little politically naive,” said Jim Hagan, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. “He might think his liberal image helpful, but the Democrats would throw him to the wolves in a minute if they got a strong Democratic challenger.”

But before Chafee faces a potentially stiff general election challenge in heavily Democratic Rhode Island, he likely will have to get past Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey in a GOP primary.

Laffey has not formally thrown his hat into the ring, but Rhode Island politicos are keeping an eye on him.

“He’s very popular and he has already started criticizing [Chafee],” which is a good indication that Laffey wants to take him on, Brown University political science professor Darrell West observed.

Rhode Island College pollsters have already tested Laffey against Chafee.

In a very small and statistically meaningless sampling of Republicans, Laffey was favored 57 percent to 19 percent over Chafee, the Providence Journal reported last month. Twenty-one percent of the roughly 50 Republicans polled were undecided. But it isn’t just Republicans who determine the outcome of GOP primaries in Rhode Island; independents, who make up roughly have of the electorate, can also vote.

Among all voters, Chafee led Laffey 42 percent to 27 percent, the college found.

The college’s Bureau of Government and Research Services surveyed 375 Rhode Islanders Oct. 12-14. The poll’s error margin was 5.1 percent.

More troublesome for Chafee should be his re-elect numbers which, according to the poll, are below the critical 50 percent mark.

About 43 percent of respondents favored re-election, while 38 percent said it was time for someone new. Among Republicans, the numbers were more daunting. Two-thirds of the Republicans polled said elect someone new, while 48 percent of Democrats and 46 percent of independents supported Chafee’s re-election.

His favorabilty, however, was an impressive 60 percent, but again that suffered when just Republicans were sampled.

West said the party’s conservative base could create problems for Chafee.

As few as 25,000 voters could participate in the Republican primary, skewing the results heavily toward a conservative candidate since usually only the most die-hard Republicans participate in partisan primaries, West said.

Laffey would be a “serious and competitive” primary opponent, he said.

Republican leaders and Chafee’s spokesman were far less concerned about a potential Republican challenge.

“The Senator looked at the situation he was in — he’s a very popular politician in Rhode Island … when he ran for election he beat a sitting Congressman who was also a former lieutenant governor,” Chafee spokesman Stephen Hourahan said.

As for gearing up, “he’s raising money, he’s doing very well with that and he’s prepared to put whatever is necessary into the run,” Hourahan said.

As of Sept. 30, Chafee had $640,000 in the bank.

John Garry, the Rhode Island Republican Party executive director, said Republicans, who make up only about 10 percent of the state electorate, will come around and support Chafee.

Furthermore independents, who make up 50 percent of the electorate, will likely rally to his aid if they think he could be in danger during a primary, Garry said.

“The majority of independents out there are comfortable with Sen. Chafee’s Republicanism,” Garry said. “Chafee is a unique Republican; he really bridges the gap between our Republicans, Democrats and independents. All politicians [in Rhode Island] must conquer that dynamic, and he does a tremendous job of that.”

Garry said rumblings about a primary fight are a good sign for the party.

“It’s a legitimate sign that our small party is growing,” he said, adding that Republicans now have several viable statewide candidates.

But Garry revealed that if push comes to shove, the state party would rally behind Chafee and steer would-be challengers to races where they would directly take on Democrats.

Republicans made modest gains in Rhode Island this cycle and Garry attributed much of the success to Chafee.

“Sen. Chafee was an integral part on a professional and personal level,” Garry said, noting that he “dipped into his own finances and made a sizeable contribution” to the party.

Any dissatisfaction with Chafee among the party faithful could be quickly erased, Garry said.

It’s “nothing the Senator cannot overcome with a renewed effort to reach out to that conservative arm of the party,” Garry said.

While no Democrat has publicly declared his intentions to take Chafee on, the freshman Senator should probably be worried that neither of his two House colleagues is ruling it out.

Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) was just elected to a sixth term and has broad name recognition but his junior colleague, Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.), seems to be taking a harder look at 2006.

“Congressman Langevin is currently looking forward to serving in the 109th Congress and thoroughly enjoys serving in the House,” his spokesman, Mike Guilfoyle, said. “However, having won his last two elections with over 70 percent of the vote and having won two statewide secretary of state races, he will certainly be considering the Senate race over the holidays.”

Kennedy’s spokesman echoed similar sentiments about the pleasure Kennedy takes in serving in the House and said little else.

“He hasn’t thought past where he is today,” said Kennedy spokesman Sean Richardson.

On the Democratic side, political observers also said to watch Rhode Island Secretary of State Matt Brown, failed gubernatorial candidate Sheldon Whitehouse and former Rep. Bob Weygand, who lost to Chafee by 16 points in 2000.

Most agreed, however, that it is far too early to say how the race will shape up, adding they do not expect any announcements before next year.

“There are so many moving pieces, and no one is moving yet, so no one knows what to do,” said one knowledgeable Rhode Island Democrat who did not want to be identified.

As to the notion that Democrats might give Chafee a pass, considering his willingness to break with his party on key votes, another Democratic operative who did not want to be named scoffed at that notion.

“If there’s a serious candidate, I don’t think the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee would turn their nose up at them,” the operative said. “Chafee won’t get a free ride because he occasionally votes with us.”

Of course, the real question is if any strong Democrat is willing to give up his safe seat or office to take on someone with Chafee’s positive ratings and who carries the Chafee mantel.

The elder Chafee was beloved by Rhode Islanders, and the established family name carries great heft in the Ocean State.

“The Senator is extremely popular, he knows how to navigate what people in Rhode Island expect from him; he’s honest almost to a fault,” Hourahan said.

Then, referring to the name of a statue that sits on top of the Rhode Island statehouse, the Senator’s aide said, “People have the sense that he just embodies that individual man.”