Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Laffey v. Chafee -- My Long Last Word on Rhodey Politics

Senator Lincoln Chafee’s victory this past Tuesday’s was a fascinating experiment in Rhode Island Republican politics. Cannon and I spent some time talking about this race on the eve of the primary and I believed that the determinative factor would be the total number of people who would vote in the primary.

I argue that Mayor Laffey lost this primary when Matt Brown’s own bid failed. For the uninitiated, Matt Brown is the current Secretary of State in RI and was challenging Sheldon Whitehouse to be the Democratic Senate candidate. Because his campaign hemorrhaged money like a horny, 23-year old guy in bar with a $9 cover, Brown was forced to fold his tent and back out of the race. When he did, Whitehouse was basically given a free pass to the general election.

The advantage to the Whitehouse camp is obvious. While his eventual opponent was getting the crap beat out of him by someone from his own party, sucking away resources and goodwill from their own base, he was able to hang back, walk in parades, and drink appletinis. Brown’s withdrawal also significantly aided the Chafee campaign as well.

To vote in a Rhode Island primary, you must be registered as a member of the party which is having the primary or be an unaffiliated voter. If you are registered as a member of a party, you can’t vote in any other party’s primary. This becomes troublesome since the vast majority of the municipal races are settled in that municipality’s Democratic primary. To avoid being shut out of a primary, a lot of RIers remain unaffiliated, even though they probably associate themselves with one party.

Enter Laffey and Chafee. The last statewide primary for Republicans drew about 25K voters. People thought that this was a high number at the time, especially in the context of a heated Democratic primary. The largest Republican primary, Almond/Macthley in 1994, drew about 50K voters. The current race drew well over 60K voters. If Brown had managed to hold on and challenge Whitehouse, the number of voters on the ‘R’ side of the ledger would have been substantially less. This favored Senator Chafee in big way. Every unaffiliated voter who came into the primary diluted the conservative base that Mayor Laffey geared his entire campaign to.

The final results bear out that Mayor Laffey ran a very good campaign. In spite of the large number of voters who turned out, he managed to keep it very close. His campaign’s biggest flaw was probably relying too heavily on polling numbers that told him what he wanted to hear. If he had expanded the net of his campaign earlier on, he would have been able to capture a larger number of the unaffiliated voters and possibly even solidify his chances going into the general election.

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