IN 2000, CHAFEE coasted to victory, chalking up a 57-41 percent margin over US Representative Robert Weygand, winning for himself the Senate seat to which he had been appointed following his fatherís death the year before. In many ways, of course, the election was an affirmation of the moderate Republicanism exemplified by John H. Chafee, and the Republican candidate benefited mightily by how Weygand and former lieutenant governor Richard Licht flayed each other during a bruising Democratic primary.
With the exception of a few heavily Democratic communities (Johnston, North Providence, Woonsocket) and previous Weygand strongholds (Pawtucket, East Providence), Chafee rolled up lopsided margins across the state, winning, for example, 72 percent of the vote in East Greenwich, 65 percent in his native Warwick, and 55 percent in Providence. With each candidate spending roughly $2.3 million, a relative pittance for a US Senate campaign, Chafee claimed 225,887 votes, while Weygand snared 164,634, according to www.msnbc.com.
The 2006 campaign, however, promises to be more costly and a very different kind of battle for Chafee, who has won his share of both critics and admirers as his tenure in the Senate has lengthened. For some Rhode Islanders, Chafee is pretty close to what they want ó a free thinking moderate and fiscal hawk who views the Bush administration with skepticism while strongly backing the environment and abortion rights. Partisan Republicans, though, tend to see the junior senator as a flake who canít be counted on to support the presidentís program.
Although the GOP picked up five Senate seats in the November 2004 election ó giving Republicans a 55-45 edge in the chamber ó 60 votes are necessary for real control. As the New York Times reported on February 2, Senate majority leader Bill Frist risks being whipsawed by competing demands: "his own ambitions, possibly presidential; White House expectations that he deliver on an extraordinarily difficult agenda, including the presidentís proposal to partly privatize Social Security; and renewed pressure from Democrats, who still have enough votes to grind the Senate to a halt." (A chart accompanying the story placed Chafee in two Senate factions, "the moderates" and "the mavericks," noting, "Mr. Chafee is simply unpredictable.")
Although Republican gains in the 2004 election would seem to marginalize the minority party, Senate Democrats can play an important role in helping to blunt Bushís initiatives, although they also face the potential risk of being labeled obstructionists. "I think we can be very effective," says US Senator Jack Reed. Ultimately, he says, "Itís the American people who will decided how effective we are." The senator says his colleagues "just have to point" the way, while making the case that Republicans are not dealing with the real needs of the American people.
Some Republican hard-liners pine for a GOP primary pitting Chafee against Cranston Mayor Stephen P. Laffey, who has emerged as a statewide figure with his populist rhetoric, penchant for publicity, and proven fundraising ability (see "What makes Steve Laffey run?" News, July 23, 2004). For his part, Laffey continues to demur about his plans for 2006, although he doesnít dampen speculation about a possible Senate run, either. Asked about the view that he seems more suited to an executive role than a legislative one, he says, "I donít think about it in terms of that, but successful people do lots of different things . . . A lot of this stuff is just people yakking. I donít know why someone would say Iím more this or more that."
Still, although the conventional wisdom holds that Laffey could beat Chafee in a primary ó a scenario, by the way, that Democrats would welcome ó things could play out differently. On one hand, notes Maureen Moakley, chairwoman of the political science department at the University of Rhode Island, "Laffey is the wild card ó we donít know what heís going to do. He could have a profound effect because of his potential in a Republican primary." On the other hand, most eligible voters in Rhode Island are independents, posing a big unknown concerning their impact in a GOP primary.
Another unknown is the potential influence of such conservative Republican groups as the Club for Growth in Washington, DC. Last summer, in an interview with the Providence Journalís John E. Mulligan, the groupís then-president ruled out financing a primary challenger to Chafee, saying it was better to have a liberal Republican than a Democrat in the Senate seat. In a February 5 story, however, the ProJo reported that the Club for Growth plans to air commercials in Rhode Island, urging Chafee to support Bushís effort to overhaul Social Security, and Pat Toomey, the organizationís president, took a wait-and-see approach to the notion of backing a Chafee rival.
Regardless, it would be foolish to underestimate a sitting senator who enjoys several distinct advantages beyond the starting point of incumbency. Bearing the best brand name in Rhode Island politics, Chafee straddles the middle line in a state where voters have expressed a clear preference for Republican governors over the last 20 years. His support for abortion rights ó in contrast to Langevin ó could also be a decisive issue for women and some other typically Democratic voters.
Primary or not, Chafee vows heíll be ready for the 2006 campaign, and he puts little stock in the Democratic-commissioned Mellman poll, noting that relatively few of its details were made public.
Although Democrats can be expected to link him with Republican policies and President Bush, Chafee suggests that his campaign message will portray him as someone who transcends partisan politics. "In the end, I think I reflect the majority of Rhode Islanders, where they want to be," he says. "I think itís because itís the right place to be. Iím looking to be fiscally responsible, to build our international relations in a beneficial way, to take care of some worthwhile social programs. I think these are all important to Rhode Islanders." Going back to his time as a city councilor and mayor in Wawick, Chafee adds, "The attribute that people naturally associate with me is, No. 1, being honest, and No. 2, being hardworking and delivering for the constituents."page 1 page 2 page 3
Issue Date: February 11 - 17, 2005
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