Six years ago, when Lincoln Chafee won the US Senate seat to which he’d been appointed after his father’s death, it wouldn’t have been surprising if Sheldon Whitehouse approached him during the victory celebration at Providence Marriott to offer his congratulations.
TIMING’S EVERYTHING: Although the candidates are close on the issues, Chafee has the bad luck of being a Republican in 2006.
In a state as small as Rhode Island, the personal very quickly becomes the political, and reaching across the partisan divide is all the easier when it involves members of the state’s gentry, particularly two men whose fathers were roommates at Yale in the heady days after World War II.
Now, though, in a year in which their Senate battle, one of a half-dozen key races that will help determine control of the chamber, the once-meaningless difference in party affiliation has become the yawning chasm — R vs. D — separating Whitehouse and Chafee.
Espousing an appealing brand of GOP moderation, two Chafees have represented Rhode Island for 30 years — attracting bipartisan support — ever since John H. Chafee won election in 1976 to succeed Democrat John O. Pastore. Now, though, as an outsider in his own party, Lincoln Chafee could be poised to pay a personal price for the national GOP’s rightward lurch. It’s a sacrifice that conservatives tend to view with either glee or ambivalence, albeit one that would dramatically shrink the reach of the anemic Rhode Island Republican Party.
Whitehouse, on the other hand, is a Democratic insider. After losing a squeaker of a gubernatorial primary in 2002, his shot at political redemption comes as other Democratic candidates, in what they hope will be a mirror image of the big gains made by Republicans in 1994, are storming the Congressional gates of GOP control.
Right now, the challengers’ main selling point is that they aren’t Republicans. Yet if they are successful, Whitehouse and his fellow Democrats will face the challenge of fleshing out a vision and racking up some broadly tangible accomplishments.
Setting the table
Whitehouse, a former state attorney general and US attorney, benefited over the summer by not facing the distraction of a tough primary opponent. This enabled him to sound a relentless message about the necessity of change in Washington and how the race, at its essence, is a referendum on President George W. Bush — whose approval rating in Rhode Island has been measured at 22 percent.
Yet those who underestimate Chafee — whose tentative manner can be misconstrued as weakness — do so at their risk. Stephen Laffey, the bombastic mayor of Cranston, learned this lesson when Chafee beat him by a surprisingly large margin during the GOP primary in September.
Similarly, by launching a negative ad charging that Whitehouse was soft on public corruption as a federal and state prosecutor, the Chafee camp may have at least slowed the Democrat’s momentum. If the pointed quality of this commercial seemed at odds with Chafee’s public persona, it also underscored how he is fighting for his political life.
Judging by recent polls, however, Whitehouse maintains an edge, and Rhode Island’s status as one of the bluest of blue states bodes well for him.