Elections ’06: Rhode Island Senate

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This fall we’ll go state by state, examining some of the most contested Congressional and gubernatorial races in the country. Tuesday we start with the Rhode Island Senate race between Republican incumbent Lincoln Chafee and his Democratic challenger, former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse.

Chafee is sometimes seen as a maverick – he was the only Republican Senator to vote against the Iraq war, and wrote in George H.W. Bush for President in 2004 – but his primary campaign was staged with the full weight of Karl Rove and the Republican party behind him. Strategists consider Chafee’s seat, one of 55 held by Republicans, among the most vulnerable of 15 GOP-held spots up for grabs. But Election Wiki contributor Old Doc Keller writes:

[The race is] too close to call, since Rhode Islanders value Chafee’s independence while disliking the policies of the administration his party supports, but do not yet have faith that Whitehouse will be able to change the balance of power in Washington.

Old Doc Keller, on the ROS Election Wiki, 9/19/06

Can Whitehouse win “the Chafee seat”? Will Rhode Islanders choose Chafee for his politics or reject him for his party’s? Is this an opportunity to re-invigorate the state’s small but feisty Republican party?

If you’re in Rhode Island and you’d like to weigh in, leave a comment here and contribute to our Election Wiki here.

Scott MacKay

Political Reporter, The Providence Journal

Chuck Nevola

Blogger, The Senescent Man

Matt Jerzyk

Editor, Rhode Island’s FutureFormer organizer, Rhode Island Jobs With Justice and SEIU 1199

Kiersten Marek

Blogger, KmarekaSocial Worker

Update, 9/26/06, 5:51 pm

We recorded Blogger Gail Murray, Common Sense Evangelist, earlier today. She’s been living in West Greenwich, RI for 34 years and she has great insight as to how things have changed. We love the tape but we couldn’t figure out how we would integrate it into the show. We encourage you to take two minutes and ten seconds out of your day to give Gail’s interview a listen.

Click to listen to Gail Murray (1.2 MB MP3)

Update, 9/26/06, 8:02 pm

Special thanks to David Ivanick, who recorded our Providence sound.

Extra Credit Reading
For a full reading list, check out the The 2006 Election Wiki.Chuck Nevola, A Modest Proposal, The Senescent Man, September 14, 2006: “I agree that we’d be better off with a Democrat who is at least vulnerable in 6 years as opposed to 6 more years of Chafee. I mean, I’ll have wait 12 years to see a chance at a real Republican in that seat. By then I’ll be gumming my food and too arthritic to write a word.”

Jim Baron, Difference between Senate candidates likely too subtle for average voters, The Woonsocket Call, September 18, 2006: “Whitehouse’s One Big Issue is that if you elect Lincoln Chafee, you are voting to put Republicans in charge of the Senate for two more years to advance the agenda of President George W. Bush and the right wing. I hate to break it to you folks, but that is not only the One Big Issue of this senatorial campaign, it is virtually the only one.”

Matt Jerzyk, And So Begins the War: Chafee v. Whitehouse, RI Future, September 14, 2006: “Can the Democratic education effort aimed at convincing voters that Chafee is pro-Bush and Whitehouse is anti-Bush actually work?”

Mark Comtois, Lessons Learned, Anchor Rising, September 13, 2006: “I guess that perhaps I did learn one lesson: while not ideologically conservative, Rhode Islanders are functionally conservative. They go to the polls and reafirm their support for the Kennedy’s and the Chafee’s every 2, 4, 6 years. They like their patricians.”

Brian McGuirk, A Democrat critiques Chafee’s progressive apologists, briSite, April 30, 2006: “Chafee’s deal with the Senate Republican leadership is this: given the small Republican majority in the Senate, Chafee allows bills and amendments that…he personally opposes to get to the Senate floor anyway, and, after that, he’s free to vote as he wishes while the Republican majority passes the legislation.”

Lexington, The independent man Lincoln Chafee is one of the last of a different kind of Republican, The Economist, September 14, 2006: “Thus Mr Chafee has survived to fight another day with the help of cash from a party where he is not at home and with the votes of 14,000 or so people who belong to the other side.”

John Dickerson, Chafee the Bruiser: The incumbent’s win in Rhode Island is a sign of the tough fight to come, Slate, September 13, 2006: “A leaflet reportedly distributed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee criticized [Chafee’s opponent in the Republican primary] for his choice of car interior: ‘Apparently, a regular interior isn’t good enough for Steve Laffey.'”

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  • J Dub

    As a Rhode Islander for 15 years, I suspect the national dimension of the race is lost on the populace. Rhode Islanders are conditioned to believe in their insignificance. The Republican primary offered two choices guaranteed to be irrelevant in the Senate: Chaffee, the ‘party of one’ with no taste for extorting favors in exchange for votes, and Laffey, who campaigned on a promise to frustrate the Republican status quo.

    Remember, this is the Biggest Little State in the Union. The big is the hometown brag, the little the sad truth. Numerically, there is more competition to be the mayor of any of the USA’s 10 biggest cities than there is to be a Senator from Rhode Island.

    It grieves me to predict that Chaffee’s pedigree will carry the day.

  • nother

    J Dub tell us more; do you like Whitehouse or do you have another ideal candidate. What’s going on down there in the land of the Pawsox, Foxylady, and fire on the water? You say “little” is the “sad truth” but doesn’t that also mean intimate? Doesn’t the small size make your Senator more accountable? You think up here Senator Kerry has visited Athol MA or Clinton MA. lately? He might drive by on his way to the Berkshires.

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  • J Dub

    Really? the Berkshires? Kerry strikes me as a Cape-and-Islands kind of guy.

    My point about size is there are so few citizens who are visible and trained and ready to serve in the Senate. Both Chaffee and Laffey were mayors of small cities (about 80,000 people). Laffey’s loudest victory in the last couple of years was winning a fight over the contract for his city’s crossing guards. Chaffee, of course, was named to his beloved father’s seat. This is why we get a Gen X Kennedy winning an election to the Rhode Island House while still in college. Easy pickins. We also tend to elect moderates from each party, which makes accountability a small issue, since our reps don’t tend to be lightning rods. Even the Kennedy – for all his considerable clout in Washington, he’s not in the news every week.

    Me, I think Whitehouse is a classic new england, above-the-neck liberal candidate – very smart, very reasoned, excellent life experience, but not magnetic or inspiring. He and Chaffee are duking it out for the Episcopal seat in the Rhode Island delegation. But in this election, Whitehouse’s opposition to the war is principled and deeply felt, and well articulated, but not muscular or forcible enough to inspire and attract those who feel we need to win by fighting on. In fairness, I can’t think of a Democrat who has. But I think he needs that in order to overcome Chaffee’s incumbency and father’s name.

    If I was going to create a cantidate for Rhode Island, it would be something with mind and heart of Russ Feingold, the spleen of Eliott Spitzer, and the cojones of Buddy Cianci.

  • loki

    Bring back,Buddy,cohogs,cabinents and swamp yankees. Whitehouse what a name!

  • mcon850

    I’m a Whitehouse vounteer who has worked about twenty of his community dinners. The one thing I’ve noticed more than any thing else is the support Sheldon gets from the audience.

    They come to take a look and leave strong supporters. The format has Sheldon speaking for about ten minutes and spending the rest of the event answering questions on his positions that are of most interest to the questioner. It seems to me that people are impressed with his depth and grasp of the issues as none of the questions are planned.

  • zeke

    Old Doc Keller on the wiki says: [voters] do not yet have faith that Whitehouse will be able to change the balance of power in Washington. If he is the fifty-first vote to reorganize the Senate as a Democratic majority, isn’t that quite a measure of influence for change?

    Especially compared to Brian McGuirk’s characterization of Chafee’s “deal” with the national Republican party: “[Chafee] allows bills and amendments that…he personally opposes to get to the Senate floor anyway, and, after that, he’s free to vote as he wishes while the Republican majority passes the legislation.”

  • pat@pat-crowley.org

    Get another blog point of view on


    A Labor Voice in the Blogosphere

  • pat@pat-crowley.org

    I guess from the point of view from the Senescent Man, those of us who feel that Bush has screwed up this war that we are stupid. Great argument.

    Got get’em Matt

  • pat@pat-crowley.org

    KMAREKA is right about the best thing about Rhode Island. You can go to Stop & Shop and see Jack Reed, or Pat Kennedy. Or the State Senate PResident at the Double D.

  • mrgc

    I live on Cape Cod, and was flying through Providence on primary day. I was at a counter while two service personnel were talking about the election. One woman said she wasn’t planning to vote. The other, very heatedly, said (I’m shortening it a bit, but this was the exact sentiment) “No, you HAVE to vote, and go vote for the conservative Republican against Chafee. He’ll have no chance against Whitehouse, and we really have to check Bush’s power. Chafee’s a great guy, and I’d vote for him if he weren’t a Republican, but we have to help get the Senate Democratic.”

    When the service personnel at the airport are thinking strategically on a party level, the Democrats have a chance.

  • pat@pat-crowley.org

    This is what Senescent Man has posted onhis blog about Chafee

    “Tell them that ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! Demand that Chafee be disciplined for this betrayal of his party and the American people and — if necessary — demand they strip Chafee of his committee assignments.”

    Not sure he believes it, but I didn’t see him disagree.

    Now he is calling Chafee a pacifist!

  • pat@pat-crowley.org

    Great post MRGC. I am glad to hear that soldiers are fighting back about the conditions that the Bush Administration has put them into.

  • pat@pat-crowley.org

    Scott, the way the quote goes is like this:

    “The difference between Liberals and Cannibals is Cannibals only eat their enemies.”

    CHRIS!!!! Buddy Cianci was a REPUBLICAN!!!!

  • Great show and an eye-opener to Rhode Island’s politics.

  • fiddlesticks

    Open source needs to declare itself as a Democratic partisan campaign organization.

  • pat@pat-crowley.org

    Oh fiddlesticks fiddlesticks!

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  • norwayboy

    The guest tonight made an issue about the proper pronunciation of Pawtucket. He then goes on, repeatedly, to pronounce Warwick as ‘War-wick’. He ought to know better. Someone needs to tell him that it’s pronounced ‘Warrick.’

  • Gail Murray

    The primary was tough. I still have Carl Sheeler and Jennifer Lawless bumper stickers on my car. At the Lawless election night gathering, we saw Chafee’s exuberant speech and felt a lift just from the joy he expressed. I have appreciated Chafee’s honesty and independence all along, and now find myself torn between the Republican I admire and the Democrat – also a good guy – who could shift the balance of power in the Senate. Emotion says Chafee; logic says Whitehouse. If it were simply a choice between two good men, I’d go with Chafee. But the war and the runaway Bush agenda need the brakes applied. So unless something changes, it looks like Whitehouse for me.

  • loki

    The question-so abusrd is: if Whitehouse wins would the Navy pullm out of Newport. Reality is Nixon moved the Navy out of Boston,Charlestown and most of the NE to warm water ports when we were fighting a”Cold”War in the North Atlantic with the Sovet Union.

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  • perikles

    I posted this message in the wrong place, but the story must get out.

    What bothers me about the whole Chafee campaign is the superficiality of opposition research and lack of historical perspective. No one asked, for example, where Chafee was on 9/11. He told us in the “Warwick Beacon” in 2002 in an article by the editor John Howell. Before the Warwick Rotarians Chafee revealed that, as firefighters raced into collapsing buildings in NYC, Chafee in Washington reacted to an evacuation of Senate Office Building by hopping into his car and driving to the “black section of D.C.” on the assumption that terrorists would not bomb the ghetto. While the rest of us watched in horror, Chafee took action: he fled. Sometimes a single act reveals character. For me Chafee is a hypocrite and a coward. I just wish RI Democrats were more on alert as to the character of their opponent.

  • jackspar

    Democrats believed that this was one of the most likely Senate seats to switch party control, due to the Democratic tilt of Rhode Island, as well as the fact that Chafee needed to expend part of his campaign fund to win the Republican primary election. Chafee’s approval ratings also took a beating from his primary battle with Laffey and may have hurt him in the general election. Another factor that hurt Chafee was the fact that Whitehouse, the Democratic nominee, had a huge head start on him, as he was able to campaign with little opposition for at least half the year and had not had to contend with a major opponent until the general election campaign.



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