A Big Senate Race From A Very Small State

09/11/2006 08:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A bit of trivia to begin with. The smallest state in the country has the longest official name. And tomorrow, it also has the most interesting primary race this side of Connecticut (so to speak). In the "State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations" the Republicans are having their own sort of Lieberman problem.

Senator Lincoln Chafee, much like Joe Lieberman, is having to win two elections this year, since he has a serious primary challenger to beat before the general election. And how Tuesday's very strange primary in Rhode Island turns out is going to matter to the big picture of how many Senate seats Democrats can pick up this year.

[I originally started writing this week's column about that big picture, but got distracted by tiny Rhode Island's primary. Hence this column -- two days earlier than usual, to make up for last week's column being late. And this week you get two columns, to make up for using a guest columnist last week.]

Why is Rhode Island so important this year? Because the Democrats have a good chance of picking this seat up, and how good a chance depends on which Republican wins the primary.

A little background to begin with. Lincoln Chafee inherited the seat when his father John died in 1999. He won reelection in 2000, and has been called the most moderate Republican in the Senate (one of a disappearing breed of fiscally conservative and socially libertarian Republicans from the Northeast). Chafee voted against the war in Iraq, for instance. He's pro-choice and has voted against the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Chafee's not exactly a rabid right-winger. But he is being challenged by one in the primary. Stephen Laffey, the mayor of Cranston, is anti-abortion and completely backs Bush's agenda.

Polls are all over the map, so tomorrow's primary is worth watching. It's hard to get accurate polls of Republicans because there are so few of them in Rhode Island. They're expecting a "record turnout" in the Republican primary, which will beat the previous record of (are you ready for this?) 45,000 voters in a 1994 governor's race. Adding to the confusion is the fact that independent voters (who outnumber even Democratic voters) are allowed to vote in the Republican primary.

This has got to be one of the most bizarre races in the country for Republicans, right next door to Lieberman's Connecticut follies. For starters, the GOP is pouring money into Chafee's campaign. Chafee pretty much defines their term RINO (Republican In Name Only), and yet the Senate Republicans are desperate for him to win his primary. So they're smearing Laffey, a hardcore Republican, with everything they've got, including leaking a profanity-laden voice mail message Laffey left years ago, and playing the race card in television ads (ad text: "Mayor Steve Laffey accepts Mexican ID cards that can threaten our security"). Pro-business Republican groups are strongly backing Laffey, complete with push polling which graphically describes a late-term abortion. In other words, both sides are playing hardball, and a lot of money is being spent.

But the most astonishing thing is that if the very conservative Laffey wins the primary, the Senate GOP is pulling all their money out of the race. Either Laffey or Chafee will face a strong Democratic challenger, former state attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse. Why is the GOP abandoning the race? Polls show that if Chafee is nominated, the general election race would be extremely close, and they (possibly) could save the Republican seat. But if Laffey wins the primary, polls show him at least 10 points behind Whitehouse in the election (in this very dark blue state). There are closer and more winnable races the GOP Senate campaign folks need to invest their money in (Virginia, for instance). So they will concede Rhode Island to the Democrats.

It's really a lose-lose situation for the Republicans all around, which is why it's the second most amusing race this year to watch (the prize belongs, of course, to the Katherine Harris circus down in Florida).

Think about it. There are only three possible outcomes. Chafee could win the primary, and squeak a victory out in the general election. The Republicans save the seat, but the man who is sitting there scored 12 out of 100 last year in the American Conservative Union's ranking of how good a conservative you are, and only a 37 for a lifetime score. And he scored a whopping 75 in the Americans for Democratic Action's ranking of how good a liberal you are (if you click the link, scroll down to page 16 to see). OK, maybe we don't win the Senate, but since Chafee seems to be voting more with the Democrats than with the GOP, it's not such a bad thing.

The second scenario is Laffey winning the primary. Then it's a big win for Whitehouse, and the Democrats pick up the seat. Even if Chafee pulls a "Lieberman" and runs as an independent or as a write-in candidate, it would just split Laffey's vote total, and Whitehouse would win in an absolute rout. Either way, we're one seat closer to controlling the Senate.

The third scenario is a surprise victory for Laffey, but seeing how this scenario is on the same planet as "we'll be greeted as liberators" and "the insurgency is in its last throes," it's not very likely.

So if I was an independent voter in the proud State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, I'd strongly consider voting for Laffey tomorrow if I wanted to guarantee a Democratic win in November. Everyone else can check Tuesday's election results from the official state website to see how it shakes out.

[More on Wednesday...]