Lincoln Chafee was cleaning a horse stall on his well-manicured farm one recent early morning, describing his latest encounter with hostile home-state Republicans.
The GOP senator had appeared the previous night before the Scituate Republican Town Committee to seek the endorsement of the small but influential group. In his halting, soft-spoken way, Chafee defended his opposition to the war in Iraq, domestic wiretapping and the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. as the principled positions of an old-school conservative.
Chafee, 53, once could count on voters in Rhode Island to tolerate his maverick ways, but this time the response was blank stares. "Nobody listened to my reasoning," Chafee recounted as he piled hay into a wheelbarrow. "They support the president on everything."
Few paths to victory are more convoluted than the one Chafee must travel to win election to a second term this year in this strongly Democratic state. Chafee will face Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey, a conservative, in the Sept. 12 GOP primary, and he must convince voters that he is "Republican enough," despite his numerous defections from the party and President Bush. If he survives the primary, Chafee then must hope that he can hold the Republican vote while wooing moderate Democrats and independents to stave off what is sure to be a strong Democratic challenge.
"I'm running for opposite constituencies," Chafee said. "It's impossible."
There are 15 Republican-held Senate seats up for election this fall, and Chafee's is one of seven that Democrats believe are vulnerable. The GOP holds 55 of the 100 seats, which means Democrats would have to win practically all of the competitive seats without losing any of their own seats in order to take back control of the Senate. Political analysts describe that as an unlikely scenario absent some cataclysmic political shake-up.
Difficult electorate to read
A recent Brown University survey showed Chafee narrowly leading both his prospective Democratic opponents -- former state attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse and Secretary of State Matt Brown -- while Laffey trailed both Whitehouse and Brown by significant margins. But the Chafee-Laffey contest is difficult to gauge. That's because there are so few Republicans in the state -- only about 25,000 vote in GOP primaries -- and because unaffiliated voters, who make up about half the electorate, can show up and vote on primary day.
"This isn't your grandmother's Republican primary," said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report and who grew up in Rhode Island. "It's hard to figure who's even going to vote in it."
Tiny Rhode Island is one of the most Democratic states in the country. It provided overwhelming three-fifths majorities to Democrats Al Gore and Sen. John F. Kerry in the past two presidential elections. Voters here like local politicians who are scrappy and colorful, but they prefer that their senators be more dignified. That pantheon of senators includes Democrats Claiborne Pell, who created the Pell college grant program, and John O. Pastore, who played an important role in passing civil rights legislation.
Another revered figure is Chafee's father, Sen. John Chafee, a moderate Republican who died in 1999 near the end of his fourth term, and whom Lincoln Chafee replaced by appointment until he was elected to a full six-year term in 2000.
The son has one of the oddest résumés in Congress. Born to one of the "five families" that originally settled Rhode Island, Chafee majored in classics at Brown University and then headed west to learn horseshoeing in Montana. He spent seven years working at racetracks in the United States and Canada and then returned to Rhode Island and worked in manufacturing. In 1986 he was elected to the Warwick City Council, and in 1992 he became mayor of that city, the state's second largest, after Providence.
In 1999, a day after his father announced he would retire from the Senate after four terms, Chafee announced he wanted to replace him. When his father died in October, Chafee was named by Gov. Lincoln Almond to complete the term. The appointment provided a critical boost. Chafee had admitted a few months earlier that he once used cocaine. He was known as an affable fellow, but some worried that he lacked his father's gravitas.
Once he arrived in Washington, the new senator kept a low profile, sometimes darting through hallways and speaking in a diffident, even cryptic style. His colleagues and reporters found him difficult to read. For instance, on the Medicare prescription drug bill, Chafee voted in November 2003 for and against different versions of the bill. He opposed the new benefit on final passage but now is getting hammered by both Laffey and his Democratic opponents for having no clear stance on the issue.
Voted against Bush in 2004
But Chafee also can be strong-willed and immovable once he makes up his mind. He shrugged off pressure from the GOP and voted against tax cuts and an energy bill packed with oil industry incentives. He was the only Senate Republican to oppose the Iraq war resolution. His greatest act of blasphemy was voting against Bush in the 2004 election. Instead, Chafee wrote in the president's father, former president George H.W. Bush.
Despite his political transgressions, the GOP establishment is backing Chafee as the party's best bet of holding the seat. "Bush and his crowd, they're all working for him," said Whitehouse. "He can't have it both ways."
Many in Rhode Island assume Chafee is motivated by the legacy of his father, but another influence that the senator cites is the "Independent Man," the 11-foot-tall gilded figure that stands atop the State House dome in Providence, representing Rhode Island's founding principles of political and religious freedom.
"Average voters here don't want an extreme," said James Hagan, retired president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. Hagan is helping to put together Business Leaders for Chafee, part of the hybrid get-out-the-vote effort that is also mobilizing women's groups, environmentalists and community leaders. "At least he wrestles and considers," says Jonathan K. Farnum, president of Wardwell Braiding Machine Co., a Republican who is helping Hagan form the business leaders group.
Laffey, 43, energetic and ebullient, is Chafee's political opposite. Although he became wealthy working for a Memphis-based financial services company, he grew up as a lower-middle-class Cranston kid. The Chafee family drives two Toyota Prius hybrid cars, but Laffey bought a huge RV so he can tool around the state campaigning with his five children. He and a platoon of campaign volunteers, many of them friends from childhood, blitz through neighborhoods and coffee shops and wave signs for commuters at the crack of dawn.
‘I'm an outsider’
Although Laffey raised taxes as Cranston mayor -- a heretical act for a conservative Republican in Washington -- he is admired for having turned around a troubled city, including by bucking powerful unions and even a platoon of highly paid school crossing guards. State and national Republican leaders strongly urged him to run for lieutenant governor, but Laffey believes his financial management skills can be put to better use in Washington. "I'm not into that," Laffey said of the intraparty pressure. "I'm an outsider. I'm running against what's going on down there."
At least some Rhode Island Republicans agree: the Scituate Republican Town Committee. The group decided to back Laffey the morning after Chafee's appearance.