Capitol Building

Inside Politics -- Your guide to National and State Politics

Darrell West

Darrell West


Heard on
College Hill

Funding Our
Public Officials

Brown Policy Reports

Brown Polls

Financial Disclosure


RI Factbook


Contact Us

Site Search

Help Support this Site

Steve Laffey, Primary Mistake:  How the Washington Republican Establishment Lost Everything in 2006 (and Sabotaged My Senatorial Campaign), New York:  Sentinel, 2007

by Darrell M. West, Professor of Political Science at Brown University

Published in the Providence Journal, Sept. 9, 2007


            This book is vintage Steve Laffey.  Smart, energetic, and hard-hitting, the former mayor of Cranston presents a funny and well-written account of recent state and national political history. When national leaders attempted to get him to run for lieutenant governor instead of the U.S. Senate, he describes an awkward meeting with National Republican Senatorial Committee chairperson Elizabeth Dole in which she buttressed her argument against a Senate run by saying that she was a Christian and that somehow their shared religious values should lead Laffey not to run against Chafee.

Laffey provides illuminating behind-the-scenes anecdotes such as the time in 1999 when presidential candidate George Bush was irritated with Chafee over the latter’s weak defense of him on national television regarding alleged drug use during Bush’s youth.  “Is that asshole Chafee going to be here,” an exasperated Bush asks about an upcoming fundraiser in Rhode Island.  “Do I have to (blanking) acknowledge him?”

            But there's a major deficiency as well, namely that Laffey is not very introspective about his Senate defeat.  When Richard Nixon lost his first presidential race in 1960 and Bill Clinton was defeated as Arkansas governor in 1980, they searched for the reasons behind their losses, made significant adjustments, and went on to future political success. Based on this book, Laffey seems to have learned little from his defeat.

He says he has no regrets about his campaign and he blames “shameful journalism”, unfriendly newspaper columnists, aggressive bloggers, and national figures such as Karl Rove and the D.C. Republican establishment which poured millions of dollars into ads, direct mail, and opposition research attacking him. 

The former mayor admits few mistakes on his own part, other than naively not anticipating that the national party would spend a lot of money to protect a vulnerable  incumbent.  He glories in planted calls from his supporters to radio talk shows and disguised postings on local political blogs.  He makes up imaginary conversations between Rove and President George Bush about whom the party should back in the Rhode Island Senate race.  He complains about outsiders who came into the state to defeat him, but does not criticize the D.C.-based Club for Growth, which spent half a million dollars running ads against Chafee.

From Laffey’s vantage point, Republicans lost control of Congress last year because the national GOP compromised its conservative principles, betrayed the vision of Ronald Reagan, and engaged in negative and personalistic attacks on fellow conservatives such as himself.  He does not believe that Republicans lost Congress because they moved too far to the right or that his ferocious primary challenge against Chafee contributed to the party’s loss of the U.S. Senate.   

This book will endear Laffey to some, but will enrage others.  It is not a humble or soul-searching reflection as much as a condemnation on those who contributed to the author’s defeat.   If I lost my home precinct and barely carried my home city with 52.7 percent of the primary vote, I would ask myself tougher questions about what went wrong in my Senate campaign.