Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Steve Laffey: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Now that the holiday season is upon us once again, it seems like an appropriate time to thank the Republican Party of Rhode Island for their gift to the Democrats: Steve Laffey.

It was back in September 2005 that Laffey, the Mayor of Cranston, ignored the frantic entreaties of his fellow Rhode Island Republicans and launched a primary challenge against Senator Lincoln Chafee. Laffey quickly attracted the attention of the Club for Growth, a far-right antitax group that specializes in funding primary challenges to moderate Republicans.

Senator Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, then the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, not being as crazy as the Club for Growth, knew that if Laffey won the Republican primary, Chafee's senate seat would fall like a ripe avocado into the hands of the Democrats, and would remain there for the foreseeable future. Determined to save the seat for Chafee, the NRSC poured millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours into the Republican primary.

The NRSC's effort in RI succeeded in staving off Laffey's challenge, thanks in large part to an influx of unaffiliated voters into the GOP primary, but at a cost. The primary challenge left the Rhode Island GOP divided and Chafee's hold on his seat precarious. As the general election neared, it became clear to the national Republican Party that they would have to intervene again. Once more, people and money that might have gone to other close races were diverted into the battle for Rhode Island, but this time, it didn't work. Chafee lost to Democratic challenger Sheldon Whitehouse. And not only did the GOP lose their seat in Rhode Island, they also saw several other incumbents go down to defeat. In particular, Senator George Felix Allen, Jr. of Virginia lost his seat to Democratic challenger James Webb.

Of course, there were a number of reasons Allen lost, especially the Macaca video and the months he spent preparing the groundwork for a presidential run when he should have been paying attention to the race in Virginia. But Laffey's primary challenge to Chafee, and Liddy Dole's panicked response, also played their part, and in a race as close as the Webb-Allen contest, even small factors can affect the outcome.

Which brings us to the 2008 presidential election. The GOP's presidential race is in a state of extreme flux, due in large part to the fact that rank-and-file voters aren't very happy with any of their choices. Back in April, when Republican frontrunner John McCain's first quarter fundraising numbers proved disappointing and his campaign began to falter, Republicans started to look for a man on a white horse to take up the frontrunner mantle.

What Republicans really needed was another George W. Bush, a dim-witted "regular guy" from a Southern state with no real record of accomplishment onto whom the GOP's various factions could project their own visions of the ideal candidate. Allen would have fitted this role admirably, and I think there can be little doubt that if his own presidential campaign hadn't been derailed by the loss of his senate seat, he would now be the Republican frontrunner, garnering adulation from the Corporate Media for his manifold virtues and bringing next year's election within stealing distance. Instead, Republican voters have been sorting through the rest of the candidates, going from Giuliani to Thompson to Romney to Huckabee, and now desperately giving McCain another look in their increasingly frantic quest to find someone they can all agree on.

As a Democrat, all I can do is say, thank you, Steve Laffey. You made it all possible.

(My thanks also to Donald B. Hawthorne of the blog Anchor Rising for inadvertantly giving me the title for this post.)
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