New U. poll finds Chafee-Whitehouse race closer than ever

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Sen. Lincoln Chafee ’75 may have steamrolled over Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey, his challenger in the Sept. 12 Republican Senate primary, but he trails his Democratic opponent in the general election, former Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse, by a hair.

According to a University poll of 578 likely Rhode Island voters conducted between Sept. 16 and Sept. 18,Whitehouse is ahead of Chafee by a margin of 40 to 39 percent, with a 4-percent margin of error. 20 percent of likely voters were undecided in the poll, which was conducted by Darrell West, director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy and a professor of political science.

A Rasmussen Reports poll of 500 likely voters conducted shortly after the primary found Whitehouse leading Chafee by 8 percent, and Rasmussen polls have showed Whitehouse leading by between 2 and 6 percentage points in the past three months.

Chafee’s contentious primary win may help him mount a campaign against Whitehouse in a highly Democratic state, said Wendy Schiller, associate professor of political science.

“I still think Chafee is stronger going against Whitehouse now than before the primary because he is battle-tested,” Schiller said. “I think Rhode Islanders are now taking a second look at Chafee.”

West pointed to Chafee’s support among unaffiliated voters and Democrats as evidence of the senator’s competitiveness in the upcoming election. According to the University poll, 17 percent of Democrats and 43 percent of Republicans in Rhode Island support the incumbent Chafee.

Chafee’s support outside of the Republican party is important for his candidacy, especially since he just won his party’s primary, Schiller said.

“Chafee has the challenge of running as a Republican but running away from the national Republican party,” Schiller said, adding that it plays into Whitehouse’s campaign strategy to call attention to the senator’s Republican affiliation.

Whitehouse, whose campaign has raised more money than the incumbent he is challenging, has focused on convincing Rhode Islanders they would be better off with Democratic instead of Republican leadership in the Senate.

“Whitehouse can’t really play on the same level (as Chafee),” Schiller said. “He can’t establish himself that way – he has to make this about party politics. That’s what (former Rep.) Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) did when he led the Republican takeover (of the House of Representatives). The Republican strategy of 1994 is now the Democratic strategy of 2006,” she said.

Gov. Donald Carcieri ’65 has thus far disproved doubters and maintained a strong lead over his Democratic challenger in November’s election, Lt. Gov. Charles Fogarty. Carcieri leads Fogarty 50 to 38 percent, according to the poll – a 7-point increase in his lead since the last University poll, which was conducted in June.

Fogarty has not convinced voters that Carcieri has done a poor job, West said.

“Carcieri has a 58-percent job approval rating, and he is leading Fogarty by 12 percentage points. I think people like the governor, and they think he is doing a good job,” West said. “I think Democrats are going to have to do a better job pointing out his deficiencies.”

Public focus on Chafee’s Senate re-election bid and its national implications has detracted attention from Fogarty’s campaign to unseat Carcieri, Schiller said.

“(The Senate race) has definitely taken the spotlight away from the governor’s race and has made it more difficult for Fogarty to get momentum for his campaign,” she said.

The races for Rhode Island’s two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are far less contentious.

In the District 2 Congressional race, incumbent Rep. Jim Langevin, who won the Democratic primary against Jennifer Lawless, an assistant professor of political science, is ahead of Independent challenger Rodney Driver, a former state representative who ran against Langevin in 2000 and 2002, first as an Independent and then as a member of the GOP.

Langevin leads Driver by a margin of 60 to 21 percent among likely Rhode Island voters, according to the recent University poll.

Though Langevin may be guaranteed re-election this year, Schiller said, future elections may not go so smoothly.

“I think the Lawless challenge pointed out potential weakness in his record. I think he is going to have to be a more active and engaged congressman in the next two years,” she said, adding that the challenge from Lawless “showed (Langevin) to be more vulnerable than people think.”

In District 1, Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy leads Republican challenger Jonathan Scott by a 35-percent margin.

Despite making headlines in recent months for his alcohol and prescription drug addiction, the incumbent Kennedy has dwarfed Scott’s fundraising efforts. Kennedy has raised 1,000 times more money for his re-election bid than Scott, who had $514 on hand according to a campaign finance report filed Aug. 23.

Schiller said Kennedy is running against his drug relapse and related car accident more than any Republican challenger. She cited Kennedy’s most recent television commercials, which address both of these things.

“(The commercials) are acknowledging his trouble and asking Rhode Islanders to judge him by his entire record,” Schiller said.

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