While US Senator Lincoln Chafee hailed his decisive GOP primary win as a referendum on his honesty, thoughtfulness, and independence, he certainly benefited from his incumbency and the massive support of the national Republican Party, both in terms of campaign cash and the dispatch to Rhode Island of a fleet of boosters to propel the record-setting vote.
Chafee attributed his 54-46 percent victory over Cranston Mayor Stephen P. Laffey to “a grassroots effort like Rhode Island has never seen,” and it’s clear that backing from independents and disaffiliated Democrats fueled the tally of roughly 65,000 votes, 20,000 more than had ever been cast in a GOP primary in the state.
Laffey, the stylistic victor in two televised debates, seemed to have seized the momentum in the waning weeks of the primary, aided all along by Rhode Island’s tiny faction of conservative Republicans and his backers at the Club for Growth. Ultimately, though, the staying power of the Chafee name, combined with the resources of the national GOP, proved too much for the hard-charging challenger. It’s all the more striking considering Laffey’s more muscular persona, his vastly superior skill at retail politics, his sharper knack for crafting his image, and the way in which his message often seemed more focused than Chafee’s.
Although the senator’s campaign went negative early, sometimes with questionable tactics — such as faulting Laffey for raising taxes in Cranston, something that many voters would consider justified, given the city’s dire fiscal situation at the time — this seems to have succeeded in raising doubts about Laffey’s suitability as a senator.
In the end, Chafee savored his surprisingly large margin of victory on Tuesday night, flashing a broad grin from the ballroom stage on the 17th-floor of the Providence Biltmore and displaying the kind of self-ease rarely seen during his bitter primary battle with the irrepressible conservative challenger.
Many campaign observers, including myself, expected Chafee to eke out a win, and he acknowledged having harbored doubts about the outcome. “Sometimes over the last few weeks, I’d get a little down,” he said, surrounding by his wife Stephanie, their children, and other family members, “but my son Caleb would come up to me and say, ‘Are you pumped?’ ” Gesturing toward the ecstatic audience of hundreds of supporters, Chafee flashed a broad smile and asked, “Are you pumped? Are you pumped? On to victory!”
Chafee spoke not long after a stunned-looking Laffey, whose image was broadcast into the Biltmore ballroom on several television screens, conceded the primary election at around 10:40 pm. The results steadily trended toward the 54-46 percent outcome throughout the night, although Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, after offering an optimistic early update, tempered expectations by citing the need for results from the state’s second-largest city — where Chafee wound up besting Laffey by several thousand votes.
What the future holds for Laffey, the Cranston native who emerged from nowhere to become mayor and then shoot like a meteor across Rhode Island’s political landscape, remains to be seen. Given his penchant for invoking the likes of Ronald Reagan, who rose to the presidency after making waves as California’s governor, Laffey’s two terms at Cranston City Hall always seemed meant as the prelude for something bigger.