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A portrait of Rhode Island politics

When Patrick Kennedy was first elected to Congress in 1994, his victory marked a rare bright note in an otherwise dismal year for the Democratic Party.

Democrats had lost eight seats in the Senate and 54 in the House of Representatives, relinquishing control of both chambers for the first time since the Eisenhower administration. Despite the Kennedy victory, Rhode Island Republicans had an unusually strong showing in a traditionally blue state. The party maintained control of Sen. John Chafee's U.S. Senate seat, took control of the governor's office and won two of the other three statewide offices. In addition, John's son Lincoln Chafee '75 won his bid for reelection as mayor of Warwick. Five years later, he was appointed to his late father's Senate seat.

With many political observers predicting a repeat of the 1994 midterms at the national level, several familiar faces from that chapter in Rhode Island's political history are again at the center of the action in the current election cycle.

Today Lincoln Chafee is running for governor, four years after being unseated by Sheldon Whitehouse as part of a Democratic tidal wave and three years after leaving the Republican party. Kennedy — who has since held the House seat continuously — announced his decision not to seek reelection in February, setting off a highly-contested race to replace him that has the potential to alter the political make-up of the state.

In 1995, Kennedy's youth and famous name made him stand out among the freshman class of legislators. Sixteen years later, Kennedy — his image tarnished by personal problems and sinking approval ratings — is retiring, sparking a fierce battle in which Republicans are hoping to retake his seat.

Journalists, pundits and politicos have made so many comparisons between the 1994 midterms and the upcoming 2010 elections, mostly on the basis of an expected Democratic thumping, that they have become something of a cliche.

Is history really repeating itself? Should Rhode Island Republicans get ready to party like it's 1994? In a number of ways, the factors at work then seem to be in play once again — but not in always in the same way.

‘It wasn't fun for him anymore'

1994 might have been a bad year to be a Democrat, but it was a pretty good time to be a Kennedy.

On Nov. 8, 1994, as Democrats across America fell to Republicans, Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island's First Congressional District was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, joining his father, Sen. Ted Kennedy, and cousin, Rep. Joseph Kennedy, both of Massachusetts.

It was not an easy fight for father or son. Ted Kennedy overcame a tougher-than-usual reelection challenge, and Patrick Kennedy faced his first high-profile political test in Rhode Island, running against Republican Kevin Vigilante, a physician who had never before ran for office.

Vigilante "ran a good campaign," said Wendy Schiller, associate professor of political science. "It wasn't easy."

But Kennedy had a strong asset. Trading on the affection that voters in Rhode Island, the most Catholic state in the union, had for the fabled New England political dynasty, Patrick Kennedy embraced his famous surname. He also held deep Rhode Island roots — he graduated from Providence College in 1991 and was elected to the Rhode Island House of Representatives in 1988.

"He targeted the voters who remembered Camelot, and who remembered John F. Kennedy (P'83) as the first Catholic president," said Jennifer Duffy, a Rhode Island native and senior editor for the Cook Political Report. He also invited relatives to campaign for him.

"Every Kennedy you've ever heard of descended upon Rhode Island," Duffy said. 
He pulled it off in the end, winning 54 percent of the vote.

Over the following years, Kennedy's high profile and the challenges of his position began to take a toll. He struggled with alcoholism and addiction to prescription drugs. He was involved in two auto accidents, and since 2006 he has checked himself into substance abuse rehabilitation facilities twice, according to the Providence Journal.

Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, also rammed heads on occasion with Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin over Kennedy's support for abortion rights. Last year, Kennedy accused Tobin of instructing him not to take communion and of telling priests not to administer it to Kennedy over the congressman's political stances. Last year, while the congressman was speaking at Brown during a health care forum, perennial political candidate Chris Young threw an anti-abortion video at Kennedy before being removed by security.

This year, Kennedy appeared vulnerable to a Republican challenge: John Loughlin, a Republican state senator, entered the race against him and was pulling in donations from Republicans across the country eager to unseat a Kennedy.

Kennedy shocked the political world in February by announcing he would not seek reelection, throwing the race for his seat into turmoil and sparking speculation as to why he decided to throw in the towel. Schiller said she does not think he was worried about defeat.

"Kennedy was exhausted," she said. "He worked incredibly hard. He had personal difficulties. It wasn't fun for him at all anymore."

The death of his father also played a role in his decision, she said, sharing an anecdote about how Patrick would watch the State of the Union with his father and cousin when each served in Congress.

"This year, he sat alone," Schiller said.

With Kennedy out of the race, Mayor David Cicilline '83 and former party chairman William Lynch are vying for the Democratic nomination for his seat. Schiller said she believes that Kennedy would have won the race had he stayed in it, and that his departure increases the odds of a Republican takeover.

But Patrick Kennedy's departure also deprived Loughlin of his signature issue — Patrick Kennedy.  The race is now as much about Loughlin as it is the other candidates, Duffy said.

Cara Cromwell, Loughlin's campaign manager, said that this is what her candidate prefers.

"Ultimately this race is about John, not Patrick Kennedy," she told The Herald earlier this month.

For her part, Schiller said she does not think Kennedy's political career has permanently ended.

"I think he'll be back — maybe not as a candidate — but he'll do something in public service."

Two unlikely candidates

Neither gubernatorial candidate should have made it as far as they did.

When state Senator Myrth York, a Democrat, and Republican Lincoln Almond, a former U.S. Attorney, faced off in the 1994 election, both had come from behind to defeat their respective parties' establishment candidates.

But in a year of extraordinary voter dissatisfaction with the status quo, it was sometimes better to be an outsider than to be seen as part of the system.

"Voters were angry," said Duffy. "They wanted to try something new."

York, who represented the 2nd Senate District, had toppled incumbent Gov. Bruce Sundlun in the Democratic primary, winning every single city and town in the state, according to data from the Rhode Island Board of Elections.

Schiller said that though Sundlun was not strongly disliked, "voters wanted a change."

She also said Sundlun was caught off guard by York's challenge, having never taken her seriously as a threat until it was too late. In the end, York beat Sundlun with roughly 57 percent of the vote to Sundlun's 27 percent, according to the Rhode Island Board of Elections.

On the Republican side, Lincoln Almond was the heavy underdog against First District Representative Ronald Machtley, who had the support of most of the state party, including Sen. John Chafee and his son.

Though the younger Chafee supported Machtley, he was impressed by a speech Almond gave at a gathering of state Republicans, crediting his stump with helping him win
over skeptics. "Almond got a standing ovation — he gave a good pitch," Chafee said.

The general election was close, with Almond edging out York by less than 14,000 votes out of 361,377 cast. Robert Healey, an independent candidate who today is running for lieutenant governor, received around 33,000 votes.

Duffy credited Almond's victory to his law-and-order image as a former prosecutor, saying that voters felt comfortable with his resume. She also believes that local factors played more of a role in the race than did national trends, and noted that Republican governors are hardly unusual in Rhode Island, having occupied the office for 22 of the past 26 years.

Schiller said that in Rhode Island, voters often elect Republican governors to put a check on the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.
The Chafee saga

In Warwick, Lincoln Chafee, the first Republican mayor in 30 years, was elected to a second two-year term in 1994. Because the city had more registered Democrats than Republicans, Lincoln Chafee said he was too busy with his own reelection bid to campaign much for his father or for Almond.

John Chafee was reelected easily that year, after playing a major part in the Senate debate over President Bill Clinton's health care reform proposal. One of the most prominent Republican negotiators, John Chafee offered his own plan and worked with Democrats on efforts to reach a compromise, though it ultimately fell apart.

When the elder Chafee died in 1999, Lincoln Almond, heeding the advice of Senate Republicans, appointed Lincoln Chafee, who had already announced his campaign, to the seat. Chafee defeated second district congressman Robert Weygand in 2000 for a full six-year term.

In the Senate, Chafee was an odd Republican. A moderate like his father before him, he voted with Democrats against many tenets of the modern-day Republican platform, including the war in Iraq, abortion restrictions and elimination of the estate tax, and in favor of environmental regulations and gun control.

His moderate-to-liberal voting record was not enough to save him from defeat in 2006, when Sheldon Whitehouse argued that a vote for Chafee was a vote for Republican control of Congress. Chafee lost with 46 percent of the vote, according to election data, even as exit polls on Election Day gave him a 63 percent approval rating.

Since then, Chafee has left the Republican Party, endorsed Barack Obama for president and launched an independent bid for governor. Every poll so far has showed him ahead of his rivals, Republican John Robitaille and Democrats Attorney General Patrick Lynch '87 and Treasurer Frank Caprio.

After controlling the governor's office for 16 years, Republicans have so far been unable to put forward a viable candidate. Neither Robitaille nor former state representative Victor Moffitt, who is also seeking the GOP nod, are considered strong candidates, with most polls showing the Republican candidate coming in third.

"It's not going to be a good year for Republicans in Rhode Island in the governor's race," Duffy said. "There will not be a Republican governor in January." 

Looking ahead to November

Duffy said that one advantage Democrats have today that they didn't in 1994 is foresight.
"It was hard to see the tidal wave coming," she said. "No Democrat is asleep today."

Duffy said that other than trying to fire up their base, Democrats have limited options to stem their losses in the fall.

"Midterms are never about the out party, so it almost doesn't matter what they do," she said.

Schiller sounded slightly more optimistic for Democrats, speculating that the zenith of anger over health care reform may have passed, and questioning whether Republicans have peaked too soon.

In 1994, Schiller said, Democrats accomplished little with their large majorities and were seen as ineffective. This time, she said, they have more substantial achievements to tout.

"They need to be extremely clear about the benefits of legislation they have enacted," she said. "Democrats are inherently worse at simplifying their message than Republicans."

Passing health care could be the biggest difference for Democrats between today and 1994, said Chafee, who identified a high degree of partisanship as the biggest similarity between now and then.

Schiller cautioned that Republicans should work with Democrats a few times between now and November lest they be seen as deliberately obstructionist. Surprises may still come, she said. "Nobody predicted 1994."

Whatever may come this November, one thing is certain: If this election is at all like 1994, its impact will continue to reverberate in Rhode Island for years to come.

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