The Wall Street Journal today has a good read on the Rhode Island race between Chafee and Laffey. It really highlights the dangers of putting all of our eggs in the base basket.
The Sept. 12 Republican clash in Rhode Island is in many ways a byproduct of a strategy embraced by both parties in recent years to move away from courting swing voters and instead relying on core party activists to provide the volunteers, votes and energy for elections and legislative showdowns. Now, that approach could come back to haunt both…
…Mr. Chafee’s most urgent argument on the campaign trail is that the nomination of Mr. Laffey will tip the general election toward Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, a former state attorney general now in private practice. Polls show Mr. Whitehouse with a formidable lead over Mr. Laffey, but in a dead heat with Mr. Chafee.
“Chafee isn’t really out of sync with the electorate, just the Republican base,” says Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. In Rhode Island, that isn’t a very big base: There are only about 69,000 registered Republicans, compared with 235,000 Democrats and 364,000 independents. The key for Mr. Chafee will be persuading enough unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in the Republican primary, which is allowed under state law, to balance his losses from his own party — which the 53-year-old senator expects to be sizable.
Now I am not necessarily a big fan of Chafee’s, but those numbers should really cause an alarm. Unlike the Connecticut Dems, we cannot afford to be playing to the base in Rhode Island. The reasons are mathematical.
In Connecticut, Democrats outnumber GOPers by better than 12 percentage points with a staggering 44% unaffiliated. The token Republicans we put up against Lieberman generally ran about 30 points behind. The Democrat base there is three times as large as ours. If the Dems run a base candidate, the GOP would still have to attract significantly more independents in order to win. That’s not likely to happen, so the potential downside to a base candidate running on the D side is relatively safe for them. The only danger for the Dems is the fact that Lieberman is running as an Independent.
In Rhode Island, however, the situation we create with a Laffey win is dangerous to the GOP’s chances of holding the Senate. In that state, we have a base of about 10% of the voters compared to the Democrats 35%. We’re already operating at a net deficit of 25 points. As the article states, Chafee isn’t outside the mainstream of voters, he’s just outside the mainstream of the base. If the party, in an effort to get rid of a “liberal” Republican, takes him out in a primary, the Democrat is almost certain to win the general.
The real danger in Connecticut is the possibility of unaffiliated voters jumping in to the GOP primary. If I were the Democrats, I would be working really hard to get independent votes for Laffey in the primary. If you could mobilize enough independents to carry Laffey through the primary, you can easily knock him down in the general and move one seat closer to taking back the Senate.