Chafee challenger’s campaign goes on, this time in his book

If you’re not yet tired of all the theories for why Republicans lost power in 2006, you will be soon. Books and essays on the topic are sure to come in heaps in the coming months and years, especially if the party continues its fall from grace.

But among all the observers, perhaps nobody has had as interesting a vantage point as Steve Laffey, the Republican former mayor from Cranston, R.I., who nearly upended state GOP royalty and an overprotective national party in a Senate primary last year. And his quick-read new book about his run is doused with blame and sprinkled with ideas on how the party can emerge from its rut.

But Primary Mistake finds its best moments when it makes its way into the title’s parentheses and describes episodes in Laffey’s improbable and quixotic campaign.

Whether it is Laffey’s painfully awkward pre-campaign conversations with the National Republican Senatorial Committee and then-Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) — both of whom predictably tried to talk him out of running against the senator — or his responses to several of the weaker lines of attack used against him, the dessert is in the behind-the-scenes nuggets.

And some of these stories are sure to further ruin any chance Laffey had of returning to his GOP colleagues’ good graces — although that bridge was already pretty well burned.

There’s a Cranston mayoral heir who responds to news of a potential Laffey primary challenge by breaking out in tears and quitting the race, explaining that his wife won’t let him run if he has a primary.

There’s Chafee’s ill-planned (or ill-executed) attempt to get Laffey to drop out. When Laffey asks Chafee what he likes about being a senator, Chafee reportedly offers his trademark awkward pause and manages: “Committee meetings.”

And then there’s a secondhand account of the hostility between President Bush and Chafee. The senator arguably antagonized the president more than most Democrats, including publicly voting for Bush’s father as a write-in in 2004.

“Is that a—hole Chafee going to be here?” Bush allegedly asks his Rhode Island campaign chairman, a close friend of Laffey’s, at a 2000 event in the state. “Well do I have to f—-in’ acknowledge him?”

Chafee had, in the preceding weeks, helped feed the controversy over Bush’s alleged use of cocaine.

Chafee is described throughout as the national GOP’s necessary evil. Indeed, the party splurged millions on his primary campaign because it didn’t think a conservative Republican could win in the state, only to see him lose the general election anyway.

But while the anecdotes are fuel for campaign junkies, the lessons learned are appetizers for thought for Republicans. And Laffey is a perfect vessel for his message, as a Reagan Republican who calls on his party to “torch the car” and start over by sticking to conservative principles on issues such as vouchers, healthcare, immigration and the war on terror.

Laffey sums up his case best at the end of Chapter 4:

“Maybe if the party’s leaders hadn’t failed [on these issues], then supporting Chafee could have been forgiven,” Laffey writes. “But the establishment’s backing of Chafee was merely the latest offense in a long catalogue of ideological sins.”

Primary Mistake: How the Washington Republican Establishment Lost Everything in 2006 (and Sabotaged my Senatorial Campaign)
By Steve Laffey
Penguin, 2007
212 pages, $25.95