Looking to 2010
Chafee’s participation in the 2010 gubernatorial election would pose the central question of who’s better equipped to save Rhode Island from its ongoing budgetary nightmare:
• A Democrat. Democrats haven’t held the governor’s office since Bruce Sundlun yielded power in the mid-’90s, and though Carcieri hasn’t much delivered on his initial promise — as reflected by his sinking approval ratings — Rhode Islanders have a record of favoring divided government.
• A (Republican) man on a mission like Laffey. Although he disputes his suitability for the conservative label, the former Cranston mayor favors school vouchers, privatizing public services, making permanent the Bush tax cuts, and other emblems of the contemporary conservative movement.
• A moderate-liberal hybrid such as Chafee, who, although perceived by his critics as being less than decisive, made signature stances, withstanding no small amount of pressure in the process, by voting against the war and against the Bush tax cuts.
Just who benefits from this kind of three-way scenario remains subject to debate.
Brown University’s Darrell West says Chafee would be formidable for whatever office he might seek, but he adds that three-way races in Rhode Island often advantage Democrats since the other two candidates have a tendency to split their votes.
Similarly, Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, who doubts that Laffey could get more than 50 percent of the statewide vote, thinks the Republican has a better shot in a general election with more than two candidates.
Then again, Chafee — who has indicated he will remain an independent if he runs in 2010 — might have a greater upside in his ability to build a big tent of support. Even now, it’s clear he could assemble a coalition, including representatives from labor, environmentalists, independents, liberal Democrats, and moderate Republicans, which could prove victorious in a three-way election.
It offers a glimpse into his gubernatorial chances when as ardent a Democratic activist as Walsh notes that Chafee “is very well-respected in Rhode Island. I’ve never worked so hard [as in 2006] against someone who I like so much . . . I think he’s an incredibly thoughtful politician.” Walsh says he suspects that Chafee has “a very high favorability rating in Rhode Island — not quite Jack Reed-like, but in that same stratosphere.”
George Nee, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, says, “I think my reading right now is that Senator Chafee would have a lot of respect within the labor community [if he were to run for governor] . . . I think him moving to the status of an independent would make that support even stronger. It would create a very interesting and fascinating scenario.”
Even progressive blogger Matt Jerzyk (disclosure: he’s a Phoenix contributor), who started his Rhode Island’s Future blog to assist in ousting Chafee from the Senate — and who posted hundreds of items denouncing what he called Chafee’s enabling of the Bush administration — is talking a very different tune.
“While Chafee’s almost daily tortured decisions between loyalty to Bush & Co. and his own sense of justice made him the wrong choice for the Congress, it might just make him an ideal candidate for executive office in Rhode Island,” Jerzyk says, via e-mail. “His palpable distrust, both of the conservative takeover of the Republican Party and the disappointing lack of courage in the Democratic Party, mimics my own feelings and the feelings of many Rhode Island progressives.”