Chafee the Bruiser

The incumbent’s win in Rhode Island is a sign of the tough fight to come.

Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee does not look like a bruiser. He can, at times, look like a friendly rabbit in a children’s story. It was his Republican primary opponent Steve Laffey who was supposed to be the meanie. The Cranston mayor once nearly got into a fistfight with his constituents. And yet, after Tuesday’s primary, it is the Laffey volunteers who will need to collect the scattered bits of their candidate’s keister from the four corners of the state. Chafee didn’t just win the election by 8 points; he won it ugly. The smiley senator buried his fellow Republican with a constant barrage of negative ads that mostly personally attacked him. (Watch Slate’s ad analysis here.) The Republican National Committee joined in the drubbing, running additional Laffey attack ads. No sin was too small. A leaflet reportedly distributed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee criticized the mayor for his choice of car interior: “Apparently, a regular interior isn’t good enough for Steve Laffey.” (I hear he doesn’t rewind his rental videos, either.)

Do you like grown-ups calling each other names? Treating each other with the bitterness and recriminations usually reserved for faculty fights? This may be the election season for you. Democrats want November to be about the unpopular George Bush and Republican majority. Republicans want it to be about local issues. Nothing brings local focus to a race better than a knee to the groin. The signs are everywhere that Republicans are pursuing this strategy across the country. On Sunday, the Washington Post outlined a national effort in which the House Republican Committee planned to spend 90 percent of its advertising budget on negative ads. On Meet the Press, Vice President Dick Cheney—who has taken the lead in attacking Iraq war critics as, among other things, “self-defeatist”—welcomed a “tough, hard-charging” campaign. In a letter to colleagues last week, Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, who is campaigning to run the House races in the next cycle and is in charge of getting out the vote this year, advised candidates “to localize and personalize the election;” to define their opponents; and to avoid “the mistake of pulling hard-hitting ads in favor of positive spots in the last weekend before Election Day.”

The Chafee victory suggests that Operation Mud might work. But it wasn’t just the volume of the attacks that appears to have been successful. The Republican Party also got the win it wanted by tossing aside ideology. When Democrats were faced with a similar battle in Connecticut between Ned Lamont and Joe Lieberman, the party establishment dithered for fear of offending their grass-roots activists. Their Republican counterparts didn’t have such misgivings. Once Washington Republican leaders decided that Laffey could not win in the general election against the Democratic candidate, they threw their support behind Chafee. It didn’t matter that Chafee was the only Republican to vote against the Iraq war and has broken with Bush on everything else, from tax cuts to the Supreme Court nomination of conservative Samuel Alito. In a bad year for Republicans, holding on to Chafee’s seat in the Senate may spell the difference between holding on to control of the body and losing it. That trumps purity.

How far did the Republicans go? The RNC parroted Democratic attacks, knocking Laffey for his connections to oil companies. Cheney, who called a special press conference after the Connecticut Democratic primary to suggest that Lamont’s anti-war victory was comfort to the enemy, is going to say nice things about Chafee or say nothing at all. This is the kind of flexibility Republicans usually label moral confusion.

Chafee didn’t have to campaign in the primaries as a conservative, which means that now he won’t have to shimmy back to the middle for the general election in the very blue state. But the incumbent is not completely in the clear. He is only polling a few points ahead of his Democratic challenger, former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse,who is well-financed and well-known to Rhode Island voters. Maybe Chafee will run in the general election to “restore a sense of civility,” as he has promised in one of his nonconfrontational ads. But Whitehouse better hope he has tipped the newspaper boy, smiled at the checkout clerk, and stopped at yellow traffic lights. If the race gets really close, any of those transgressions could be Chafee ad fodder.