Democrats look to take Senate seat in upcoming Chafee-Whitehouse contest

Chafee '75 and Whitehouse have strong East Side connections

Thursday, October 26, 2006

If the Rhode Island race for U.S. Senate were the Tour de France, Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse would wearing the yellow jersey, as he enjoys an ever-increasing lead over Sen. Lincoln Chafee ’75.

The most recent poll from national polling firm Rasmussen Reports, released Oct. 24, found Whitehouse leading Chafee by eight points. But days of uphill riding are still ahead for both Chafee and his challenger, and each is ready with a political platform shorter than most soundbites. For Whitehouse, it’s “Democrat-controlled Senate.” For Chafee, it’s “Roger Williams scandal.”

Partisan politics for two East Side boysThe race is deeply rooted in Providence’s East Side, as much of Rhode Island political history has been. Whitehouse has been spotted in early-morning meetings with his aides at Coffee Exchange on Wickenden Street. A few blocks away on Brook Street, Chafee has been seen breaking for lunch at local diner Loui’s.

The political battle between these sons of connected and prominent East Side families has taken on national significance since 2002, when Chafee was the only Republican to vote against the war in Iraq. The two candidates’ fathers, the late former ambassador Charles Whitehouse and the late former Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., were roommates at Yale University, and the children of Whitehouse and Chafee both attend the Wheeler School on Hope Street.

Rhode Island has been in the national spotlight this election season amidst speculation of a Democratic takeover in the Senate. Republicans have held a Senate majority for much of the period since the 1994 election, with the exception of a Democratic majority during 2001 and 2002, and Republicans currently hold 55 of the Senate’s 100 seats.

Thirty-three Senate seats are up for election this year. Of those seats, Rasmussen Reports has projected that 16 will go to Democrats, with four seats leaning Democratic and five seats up for grabs. The remaining eight seats are considered likely Republican retentions. Rasmussen has classified the Rhode Island Senate race “Leans Democrat.”

During the first televised debate between the two Senate candidates at Toll Gate High School in Warwick on Oct. 19, Chafee played his usual cards, trumpeting himself as an “independent thinker” and a moderate Republican. Chafee – whose vote in the Senate at times splits with that of his party – has found himself in a race that centers more on party affiliation than any other in recent Rhode Island history.

Much of the gusto from Whitehouse’s campaign has centered on securing Democratic leadership of the Senate.

One Whitehouse television advertisement, titled “Our Side,” emphasizes his Democratic partisan politics: “From the very first vote in the U.S. Senate, he’ll be on our side, joining with (Democratic Rhode Island Senator) Jack Reed to support a Democratic Senate,” the commercial states.

In line with the campaign strategies of Democratic candidates across the country, Whitehouse has latched on to public discontent over the Iraq war and President George W. Bush, whose approval rating in Rhode Island is lower than in any other state.

Getting those Republican feathers to stick to Chafee is Whitehouse’s main challenge, and it will be a difficult one. At last week’s debate, Whitehouse repeatedly blamed Chafee for Bush’s handling of the war – even though Chafee, unlike potential Democratic presidential contenders Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and John Kerry, D-Mass., did not vote to authorize using force in Iraq.

In the 2004 presidential election, Chafee did not vote for the current Republican president but instead wrote in the name of his father, former president George H. W. Bush. One of few Republicans who has put environmental concerns at the top of his list, Chafee sits on the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee.

Asked countless times why he doesn’t join the Democratic Party, the senator typically responds with a note of ambivalence about the current state of his own party.

“I’m hoping that the pendulum will swing back to the Republican Party I like … the party of (California Gov. Arnold) Schwarzenegger, (former New York City Mayor Rudolph) Giuliani and (outgoing New York Gov. George) Pataki,” Chafee said at last week’s debate.

Chafee’s inner circle even includes former Democrats: his legislative director is Democrat-turned-Independent Deborah Brayton.

Part of the reason Chafee is lodged in the Republican Party at a time of such national division is because no other Republican in Rhode Island would be elected to the Senate. Politics in the Ocean State are the inverse of the current federal political climate, as Rhode Island’s Democratic majority enables the state’s Democrats to be consistently partisan.

Whitehouse’s steadily growing leadChafee has pounced on Whitehouse’s record as a U.S. attorney and state attorney general, blaming him for corruption at Roger Williams Medical Center that has since led to the prosecution of numerous top hospital officials.

During last week’s debate, Chafee accused Whitehouse of ignoring mounting complaints of corruption from doctors at Roger Williams Medical Center. No public officials were indicted during Whitehouse’s tenure as attorney general.

Public records of past government service make both Chafee and Whitehouse vulnerable to political attacks. The similarity ends, however, when it comes to each candidate’s political viability as a senator.

Chafee’s incumbency will give him greater influence in the Senate, whether Democrats or Republicans control its leadership. In addition to sitting on the Environment and Public Works Committee, Chafee currently chairs the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs as a member of the Committee on Foreign Relations. The senator also sits on the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.

Even if control of Senate leadership shifts to the Democratic Party and Chafee loses his chairmanship, he will retain the authority of a second-term senator – and seniority, more than party affiliation, is the measure of influence in the Senate.

Buoyed by his one elected term in the Senate and the legacy of his father, Chafee began the race with a substantial projected lead over Whitehouse. A January Rasmussen poll placed Chafee 12 points ahead of Whitehouse.

Whitehouse reduced Chafee’s lead in the weeks leading up to the primary election. While Chafee was involved in a heated contest against Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey, the largely unopposed Whitehouse – his most threatening Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Matt Brown, dropped out of the race in April – campaigned against Republicans from the start. A Rasmussen poll from the day after the primary gave Whitehouse an eight-point lead.

Subsequent polls have shown Chafee consistently lagging behind Whitehouse. Reversing this trend has been complicated for the incumbent because of his campaign’s financial shortcomings.

Laffey’s challenge not only distracted Chafee from his general election campaign but also consumed the majority of the senator’s war chest. Chafee’s campaign spent over $1.4 million between July and September and had $580,000 on hand at the end of September, according to campaign finance reports filed Oct. 15.

While the multi-millionaire Chafee recently loaned his campaign $500,000 in last-minute funds, the Whitehouse campaign is not as desperate for financial relief. Whitehouse’s campaign had $1.4 million on hand at the end of September, even after spending more than $900,000 that month.

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