The Milquetoast and the Blowhard

Rhode Island’s Shakespearean Senate battle
By ADAM REILLY  |  September 8, 2006

SWAGGERING BULL?: Cranston mayor Steve Laffey (left) is running a cocky, McCain-style campaign, painting incumbent Lincoln Chaffee as a blue-blooded liberal

BARRINGTON, RI, AUGUST 30 — Now is not the time for Lincoln Chafee to be timid. The seven-year incumbent US senator is trying to fend off a nasty Republican-primary challenge from Cranston mayor Steve Laffey, who’s painting Chafee as a weak-kneed moderate and running at him from the right. And Laffey may be getting the better of the battle: late last week, a Rhode Island College poll showed him leading Chafee by a hefty margin — 51-34 percent — among likely Republican-primary voters.

But at this particular moment, standing outside the Barrington Shaw’s Supermarket a day before the aforementioned poll came out, Chafee is weirdly incapable of mustering the intensity his situation demands. There’s a tentativeness when he approaches possible voters, an almost fragile delicacy to his retail politicking. Chafee’s preferred opening line (“Best wishes — Senator Chafee”) suggests he’s saying goodbye. When he puts his arm around someone, he holds his elbow out from their body, thereby keeping physical contact to a minimum. And his quiet pleas for votes — “September 12th, need your help” — often come a second too late, when the intended audience is already out of earshot.

Still, people seem pleased to see him. A Shaw’s employee waits patiently with his dustpan while Chafee finishes another conversation, then mentions the statue of Chafee’s father in Bristol’s Cold State Park (John Chafee was governor of Rhode Island and later represented the state in the US Senate) and vows his support. Several people pointedly wish Chafee good luck. And when the senator tries to shake one middle-aged woman’s hand, she acts like she’s just met a rock star: “Oh my god!” she yelps, hands fluttering around her face. “Oh! This is the most exciting time of my life!”

When I ask, Chafee says he’s feeling good about the race, but it’s an unconvincing take. At one point, the senator tells his three aides how much harder it is to campaign outside in cold weather. “Well,” he adds, “I hope I’m standing here in October.” “You will be,” his spokesman promises. Later, as we discuss the dynamics of the campaign, Chafee sounds like a man who’s feeling the pressure in his bones. “I’ve been up there on the tightrope,” Chafee says, pantomiming keeping his balance. “Having to run a primary in which the electorate wants me to support the administration, and the other electorate in the general election angry if I ever cast a vote with them.”

Clash of the archetypes
The Chafee-Laffey fight has many subtexts. It’s partly about the balance of political power in Washington, DC: since recent polling shows Chafee narrowly beating Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in November, and Laffey losing badly, a Laffey victory would seem to bode well for the Democrats. (That’s why the national Republican establishment is squarely behind Chafee, even though Laffey’s ideology is more simpatico to the Bush administration’s.) It’s also about the future of the Republican Party: Laffey’s main beef with Chafee is that he too frequently sides with liberals — e.g., against the Iraq war and tax cuts for the wealthy — and a Laffey win would be a bad omen for Republican moderates everywhere. And it’s about class: Chafee is a blue-blooded WASP from one of Rhode Island’s Five Families, Laffey a self-made millionaire who plays up his humble roots (his father was a tool manufacturer) and jibes at Chafee’s alleged sense of entitlement. But on its most elemental level, Chafee-versus-Laffey is a showdown between two radically disparate personalities.

1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |   next >
  Topics: Talking Politics , Lincoln Chaffee, Elections and Voting, Politics,  More more >
| More

Most Popular
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   BULLY FOR BU!  |  March 12, 2010
    After six years at the Phoenix , I recently got my first pre-emptive libel threat. It came, most unexpectedly, from an investigative reporter. And beyond the fact that this struck me as a blatant attempt at intimidation, it demonstrated how tricky journalism's new, collaboration-driven future could be.
  •   STOP THE QUINN-SANITY!  |  March 03, 2010
    The year is still young, but when the time comes to look back at 2010's media lowlights, the embarrassing demise of Sally Quinn's Washington Post column, "The Party," will almost certainly rank near the top of the list.
  •   RIGHT CLICK  |  February 19, 2010
    Back in February 2007, a few months after a political neophyte named Deval Patrick cruised to victory in the Massachusetts governor's race with help from a political blog named Blue Mass Group (BMG) — which whipped up pro-Patrick sentiment while aggressively rebutting the governor-to-be's critics — I sized up a recent conservative entry in the local blogosphere.
  •   RANSOM NOTES  |  February 12, 2010
    While reporting from Afghanistan two years ago, David Rohde became, for the second time in his career, an unwilling participant rather than an observer. On October 29, 1995, Rohde had been arrested by Bosnian Serbs. And then in November 2008, Rohde and two Afghan colleagues were en route to an interview with a Taliban commander when they were kidnapped.
  •   POOR RECEPTION  |  February 08, 2010
    The right loves to rant against the "liberal-media elite," but there's one key media sector where the conservative id reigns supreme: talk radio.

 See all articles by: ADAM REILLY