Metro, News

Whitehouse, Flanders square off in first TV debate

Senate seat candidates discuss Kavanaugh, climate policy, partisanship, opioid crisis

By and
Senior Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Incumbent Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse and Republican challenger Robert Flanders ’71 faced off last night in the first televised debate of Rhode Island’s 2018 Senate race. Whitehouse and Flanders answered questions about the economy, President Trump and the recent hearings of Surpeme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh hearings in the WPRI Eyewitness News debate moderated by Ted Nesi of WPRI and Tim White of Target 12.

The most recent polling favors Whitehouse. Fifty-seven percent of likely voters would vote for Whitehouse, compared to 33 percent for Flanders, according to the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

The two candidates enter the playing field with differing levels of prior political experience. Whitehouse was first elected to the Senate in 2006 and has held his seat ever since. Flanders, a former Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice, is running for the Senate for the first time and has never held elected office.

Much of the debate revolved around the Trump administration and the polarized nature of political discourse in Washington. The debate began with questions about Kavanaugh’s recent confirmation hearing. Whitehouse, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was an “early no” vote in the hearing process, The Herald previously reported. Flanders claimed Whitehouse’s performance during the hearings was “an approach of political flatulence,” adding that Whitehouse owed Kavanaugh and his family an apology. Whitehouse fired back, saying that the allegations brought forward in the testimony by Christine Blasey Ford, professor of psychology at Palo Alto State University and research psychologist at Stanford University, warranted serious consideration and questioning.

The candidates also traded blows over the Trump administration’s foreign policy. Whitehouse said Trump has undermined the country’s position in the international sphere, while Flanders praised the administration’s work to repair the United States’ relationship with North Korea.

The opioid crisis was also a major point of the debate. Whitehouse touted his ability to work across the aisle, citing the 2016 passage of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which sought to curb the rising opioid epidemic. Flanders claimed that Whitehouse wasn’t serious about solving the opioid epidemic and alleged that he was receiving major contributions from drug companies.

The majority of Whitehouse’s donations come from lawyers and law firms, according to the Open Secrets Center for Responsive Politics.

Flanders also claimed Whitehouse was guilty of insider trading, referencing a 2012 TV commercial that made the same accusation. The commercial claimed that Whitehouse was given prior information about the 2008 financial collapse and only acted to protect his own financial interests.

The commercial was funded by People’s Majority, a super PAC formed to oppose Whitehouse, according to Politifact. The organization rated this accusation “Pants on Fire” on its scale of truthfulness.

The debate also raised local issues, including the construction of the Burrillville power plant. Flanders emphasized his opposition to the plant, citing community concerns about truck traffic and water usage, according to the Providence Journal.

In January 2016, Whitehouse described the Burrillville Power Plant as a necessary solution to a “choke-point” issue of inadequate natural gas supply “in Southern New England,” according to the Providence Journal. But Whitehouse is a longstanding vocal critic of natural gas and fossil fuels. During the debate, he declined to take a side on the power plant, focusing exclusively on national climate policy rather than local issues. This pivot to national policy has been Whitehouse’s stated position on the Burrillville Power Plant since July 2016.

Flanders said he would not be a strictly partisan vote in Washington. “I’m not going to vote with any party that doesn’t help Rhode Islanders, including the Republican Party,” he said.

Whitehouse claimed that Flanders “lines right up with Trump,” and “supports (Trump) on all the things that would hurt Rhode Islanders the most.”

The general election is set for Nov. 6.