Laffey's Last Laugh

A rebel Republican whose cause has already won out


It was a good idea, bringing Steve Laffey to a bar. It was pure luck that our waitress was a looker.

"Hello, pretty lady," Laffey says when she hands us our menus. He pauses for emphasis and smiles. "Strikingly pretty lady."

No matter how it looks in print, this was pure charm. The waitress laughs. Laffey orders soup and a lettuce wedge, rolling up his sleeves.

"It's a good thing they've got food here," he says. "That last place I was at? Spaghetti lunch. I've been to a lot of spaghetti lunches, so I know what happens. I get up, I look down at my white shirt, and there's a nice red stain looking up at me."

We are a five-minute walk from the halls of Congress and it's awfully easy to imagine Laffey buttoning his sleeves and heading back there to joke around with colleagues, hash out, tell the female reporters how nice they look. But Steve Laffey isn't in Congress. He's smarting from defeat in a Senate primary last year and shopping a book, Primary Mistake, about how the Republican Party screwed him over.

"It's a fun book. I could have written the book at the 40,000 foot level, at the academic level," Laffey says. "I knew someone would do that, but I didn't know it would be Alan Greenspan, a week after me, from the same publisher! 'Republicans put power over principle and they deserved to lose.' That's a direct quote from his book, and he's right. But I wanted to write a book from the crop-duster level."

What happened was this: In September 2005, midway through his second term as mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island, Laffey announced a run against incumbent Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee. Laffey was ambitious ("I love campaigning, I love raising money"), pro-life, economically conservative, and pro-Iraq War. Chafee was none of those things. He'd been elevated to the Senate when his father John died and had proudly voted against every major Bush-backed bill, as well as many of his nominees.

Laffey thought he was doing his beloved party a favor. "There is no way to grow the Republican Party without removing [Chafee]," he told then-Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman. Mehlman, Karl Rove and everyone else with pull in the GOP figured Chafee could hold the seat while Laffey would lose it for them. He met with Elizabeth Dole, then-head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who more or less admitted that Chafee was a traitor to the cause but that they would spend whatever it took to save him.

Spooning salad dressing onto his lettuce wedge, Laffey still scoffs at the smart boys who told him not to run. "They had their push polls, we had our real polls," he says. "I could have told you two years ago that Lincoln Chafee couldn't win the general election. Ninety-nine percent name recognition. Forty percent of people saying they'd vote for him. You don't win with those numbers."

Actually, the official GOP realized the problems with Chafee. It realized that if Republicans, and Republicans alone, decided his fate, then Chafee would lose. So the forces behind Chafee hunted down independent ("unaffiliated" in Rhode Island) voters and asked them to vote against Laffey. Direct mail twisting a Laffey comment to make him sound pro-choice was sent to Republican voters; liberals and independents were reminded that he was actually staunchly pro-life. Republicans were told Laffey was a crook who raised property taxes, and liberals were reminded that Chafee had stood like St. George against the Bush tax cuts.

"They weren't just attacking me," Laffey says. "They were attacking the capitalist system. They'd say, 'Steve Laffey made money helping oil companies make money. Yeah! Darn right! Sure did! And restaurants, and retailers—I made our clients a lot of money."

Cash from the Club for Growth and far-flung conservative activists kept Laffey competitive with Chafee—he got around three-quarters of his funds from out of state to Chafee's fifty percent. But the pummeling worked, and Laffey's pleading, mostly positive, anti-Washington campaign was subsumed by attacks he didn't effectively rebut.

But what did Chafee's primary win mean for the GOP? In the long run, nothing. Chafee was an anomaly before the election, and after he lost to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse it seemed like history run its course. As Chafee went down, so did four of New England's five Republican congressmen. The party only backed their incumbent as a way of slowing the guillotine going down on Republicans in New England. Now that Chafee's gone, no Republican will bother bringing an indecisive, flawed, liberal back into the fold. (In 2000 Rhode Island Democratic Congressman Patrick Kennedy joked that "when I hear someone talking about a Rhode Island politician whose father was a senator and who got to Washington based on his family name, used cocaine and wasn't very smart, I know there is only a 50-50 chance it's me.")

In fact, if one of Laffey's goals is a more Reaganite, less liberal party, he's already won. I ask him what he thinks of the National Republican Senatorial Committee sitting on its hands when Nebraska Republican Jon Bruning entered the primary for Senate and scared Chuck Hagel out of politics, or what he thinks of establishment Republicans backing primary challenges against Maryland's Wayne Gilchrest, North Carolina's Walter Jones, and Ron Paul—the only anti-war Republicans left on the Hill. He shrugs.

"Anybody who wants to run should run," he says. "When I ran in Cranston there was a guy who filed against me as an independent because he wanted to keep a giant inflatable gorilla in his yard. Did I say to him, 'You can't run?' No way. I debated him!"

But when I mention the Democrats' version of the Laffey-Chafee races—the Connecticut primary that turned Joe Lieberman out, he gets more specific. The party needs some purges, after all. The corrupt ones, the Ted Stevenses, have got to go. The ones who don't support the president in the war on terror should check their rear view mirrors.

"We're supposed to pine for the Rockefeller Republicans?" he says, astonished. "What was so great about the Rockefeller Republicans? What was so great about Rockefeller? The guy was a sleaze, wasn't he?"

This is, actually, what the GOP establishment believes now. Nowhere in America is the party pushing aside a Laffey-esque, Reaganite anti-taxer for a liberal Republican. They're actively pushing out the anti-war Republicans. Yet in Primary Mistake, Laffey only mentions Iraq at the end of a list of five "body blows" that felled the party in 2006. Even then it's only mentioned as a "competence" issue. That's how Laffey sees it: Not subject to debate, subject only to managerial fix-ups.

"I was the first person to call for Donald Rumsfeld to resign," Laffey says. "Major mistakes were made in the war in Iraq. It's unfortunate that the president didn't just go in there and win. Americans want to win. Ronald Reagan's vision of the Cold War was 'We win, they lose.' Americans don't agree with MoveOn.org and the other left-wing people, who are on the verge, as Charles Krauthammer very correctly wrote, of treason."

Aren't the Democrats winning now, though, because of the war? "Here's what the Democrats should have done," Laffey says. He holds up his left hand and starts sketching an invisible list on it. "They should have asked the president, 'What do you need?' They should have asked, 'How can we help you win this war?'"

He wanted to be a senator but he wanted the Senate to have a little less say in what the president does? "In wartime? I think it's healthy to have a debate about this. But in the end I see the president as having the power to listen in and detain people. You don't want to let these people out. You let them out, and they go back out there and they try to kill you again? Huh? What's that?" He lifts up both his hands expectantly, as if something's going to fall out of the sky and make sense of it for him.

Laffey buttons up his sleeves and returns to his main points. The problem with the Republican Party isn't the war. It's political desperation, it's sleaze, it's a president who doesn't know how to veto spending. I've just shown him Mitt Romney's new TV ad (Laffey has endorsed Giuliani), where the former governor of Massachusetts laces into the GOP for "acting like Democrats" and not controlling their spending or their scandals. "That's powerful stuff. Think what would have happened if they'd been saying this before!"

This Laffey's paradox: He's an outsider with the ideology of an insider. Republicans aren't in a 1976 situation where moderate and conservative wings are debating what the party stands for. The party is unified: Anti-tax, anti-spending, pro-life, girded for an expansive and long-running war on terror. There is no future for the Lincoln Chafee types who challenge that dogma. The foreign policy and tax debates are over.

Laffey himself is going to work to elect Rudy Giuliani president of the United States and then try to return to politics. "The governorship is open in 2010," he points out, hailing a cab. He's kept ElectLaffey.com operative and stands a far better chance at winning office when foreign policy and George W. Bush's record won't be on voter's minds. The rest of his party will have to worry about that.

David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.