Advantage: Whitehouse

The Democrat has the best shot in years to claim ‘the Chafee seat’ from the GOP
By IAN DONNIS  |  May 3, 2006

HERE'S SHELDON: Spared a bruising primary battle, Whitehouse has four months in which to tout his message that sending another Democrat to Washington is the best way to strike a blow against DC Republicans.

It was just one more in a steady stream of campaign stops, efforts that might land Sheldon Whitehouse six months from now in the most exclusive club in the nation. And though there were only about 40 people in his audience, the candidate’s appearance at a senior housing complex in Warwick on Monday highlighted Whitehouse’s status as the man best positioned to return to Democratic control the Senate seat held by two Chafees over the last 30 years.

US Senator Jack Reed, the state’s most popular Democrat, used the occasion to lend Whitehouse his hearty endorsement. The candidate himself barely mentioned US Senator Lincoln Chafee, preferring to focus on his message on how the best way to strike a blow against Republican control in Washington is by electing another Democratic senator from Rhode Island. It hardly seemed coincidental that the event — in the city where Chafee not long ago served as a well-liked mayor — came less than a week after Secretary of State Matt Brown, Whitehouse’s main Democratic rival, pulled out of the September primary.

Reed downplayed the timing, telling reporters that his blessing “seemed to me not just last week, but for several weeks, the right thing to do in order to help solidify our efforts on the Democratic side and move forward to victory in November.” At any rate, Whitehouse, who will be able to husband his resources and steadily hammer away at the Bush White House, is the most immediate beneficiary of Brown’s decision to fold his ill-fated campaign. Self-styled Democratic populist Carl Sheeler remains in the running, describing himself as someone who can better appreciate the concerns of typical Rhode Islanders. Thanks to a far larger war chest, though, Whitehouse will likely be spared a self-destructive primary — like the one between Robert Weygand and Richard Licht in 2000 that cleared the path for Lincoln Chafee’s election to the Senate.

Asked about the impact of Brown’s withdrawal, Whitehouse says, “The ultimate focus has always been the same, which is to make clear that if people want anything different from Washington, sending down a Republican — whoever it is — isn’t going to make that difference. Now we have a better opportunity, I think, to focus on that point, and there’s less likelihood of a lot of negative back-and-forth in our primary, which was the one real potential distraction that we faced.”

The Dems target Chafee
Although redistricting and other structural impediments may diminish the likelihood of broad Democratic gains in Congress, strategists consider Chafee’s Senate seat — one of 55 held by Republicans — among the most vulnerable of 15 GOP solons who face reelection this fall.

Democrats, naturally, have been doing their utmost to make the incumbent seem weak, not least because of the widespread belief that Chafee would be a more formidable general election opponent than Cranston Mayor Stephen P. Laffey, who is energetic, well-financed, and politically skilled, but decidedly more conservative. On Monday, for example, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released a statement — headlined, “Chafee gets hit from all sides” — describing how, in addition to criticism from Whitehouse and Laffey, the conservative Club for Growth has spent $200,000 to run ads describing Chafee — a fiscal hawk, in fact, when compared with President Bush — as being fiscally irresponsible.

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