Calling Laffey “a potentially very strong candidate,” Toomey added that it remains unclear if the mayor will challenge Chafee, one of the most vulnerable Senate Republicans up for reelection next year.
Toomey, who in 2004 unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), suggested that the Club is keen on replacing Chafee with a more conservative Republican.
“We have spoken with Steve, but we have not made a decision about what to do in that race,” Toomey said. “We just haven’t made a decision in that race.”
He added, “We certainly will take a very close look if a race develops there.”
Laffey was unavailable yesterday, said his spokesperson, Robin Muksian-Schutt. Muksian-Schutt added that the mayor’s position about running in a Republican primary against Chafee had not changed since he last issued a statement in April.
That statement left unclear Laffey’s intentions but appeared to needle Chafee for his carefully calibrated, middle-of-the-road voting record.
“I’ve been across the state of Rhode Island, and what I have found is that fair-minded Republicans, Democrats and independents are not happy with the way things are running in Washington — and neither am I,” the statement said. “Rhode Island needs strong, independent leadership in Washington — not weak, indecisive waffling.”
Conservatives have long grumbled about Chafee, who has opposed some of President Bush’s tax cuts, supported a measure last year that would have made it tougher to cut taxes, and voted for Bush’s father for president in 2004.
But GOP officials acknowledge that Chafee, the mild-mannered son of the popular, late Sen. John Chafee (R), is perhaps the only member of his party who can win in Rhode Island, which strongly backed Democratic Sen. John Kerry’s White House bid last year.
“Reelecting Senator Chafee is an integral part of maintaining and growing the Republican majority, and that’s what we intend to do,” said Brian Nick, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).
Stephen Hourahan, Chafee’s press secretary, said the senator had begun assembling a campaign team and would end the second quarter of 2005 with $1 million in the bank. He also said Chafee would back Laffey for lieutenant governor next year if he opts to run.
Even some conservative activists hungry for more tax cuts, less government spending, and regulation and entitlement reform have conceded that Chafee may be the only Republican who can hold onto the seat.
Asked if the newly hatched Free Enterprise Fund would back Laffey in a primary against Chafee, founder Steve Moore said, “Possibly.” (The fund is legally barred from getting involved in races but is establishing a political action committee.)
Referring to Laffey, Moore, who was replaced by Toomey at the Club before launching the Free Enterprise Fund, said, “Our concern would be whether this guy can actually win. Rhode Island is such a liberal state.”
Democrats clearly believe that Rhode Island is a ripe target.
Two well-known and well-funded Democrats have already launched campaigns for their party’s Senate nomination: Secretary of State Matt Brown and former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) regularly bashes Chafee for trying, in its view, to be all things to all people — citing, for example, Chafee’s recent yea vote for John Bolton’s U.N.-ambassadorship nomination.
And Republicans privately concede that Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, where Sen. Rick Santorum (R) faces state Treasurer Bob Casey, will be among their bloodiest and most expensive battles next year.
But Toomey has said his group is focused solely on its agenda — lower tax rates and trade barriers — and uninterested in party affiliation.
Earlier, he said the Club would back a Democrat if that candidate were more supportive of “economic freedom” than the Republican in the race. So far, the Club has supported only Republicans.
The Club, under Moore’s leadership, backed winning Senate candidates in South Carolina and Oklahoma in the 2004 cycle and helped Toomey come within a hair of toppling Specter.
Pennsylvania was the Club’s biggest investment in 2004, and even though Toomey lost his strong showing for a GOP primary challenger raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill and in the White House.
Whether Rhode Island will be the Club’s 2006 Pennsylvania remains to be seen. “We have a process that we go through before we decide to get involved in a race, and it’s very early in the cycle and we have not undertaken that process in Rhode Island yet,” Toomey explained.