Scott MacKay Commentary: Whitehouse, Republicans & RI's 2018 Senate Race

Apr 10, 2017

Rhode Island’s 2018 U.S. Senate featuring incumbent Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse just got more complicated. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay parses the latest developments. 

The conventional political view in cobalt blue Rhode Island until recently was that Whitehouse would have an easy path to re-election next year. He is one of the state’s most accessible politicians and his staff and constituent work is stellar. You may not like his liberal Democratic views, but voters just about always know where Whitehouse stands and what he thinks. (Except on that nettlesome Burrillville power plant issue).

He works well with Jack Reed, his fellow Democrat and Rhode Island’s senior senator. The Reed and Whitehouse  voting records are practically carbon copies. Their styles differ more than the substance of their views, which coalesce in a similar disdain for many of President Donald Trump’s initiatives.

Reed, with his military background, is the more buttoned down. But lately Trump has driven him to be as outspoken on many topics – including opposition to the new Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch -- as the more florid Whitehouse.

Into this fray now is Republican Robert Flanders, a former Rhode Island Supreme Court justice known as one of the state’s top trial lawyers. At 67, Flanders has a long Rhode Island resume, highlighted by his recent oversight of the Central Falls receivership. His leadership drew some brickbats from organized labor and some retirees upset about their pensions being cut. Yet, the struggling onetime factory city is doing better today. Any objective observer has to give Flanders some credit, along with a new city council and the city’s young mayor, James Diossa.

Flanders was promoted by former U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee for a spot on the federal bench. In the end, Flanders didn’t get the judgeship, but at the time of his nomination Whitehouse summed up Flanders reputation , calling him  ``a very capable guy.’’

A Whitehouse-Flanders contest would pit two brainy Ivy educated lawyers against each other –Brown grad Flanders versus Yalie Whitehouse. Flanders, a celebrated Brown football and baseball player, notes that he was raised in a middle class family and understands the struggles of working families better than the wealthy Whitehouse. That may be a good talking point, but Rhode Island voters have never cared much for such arguments; our blue-collar state has sent a string of blue-bloods – Theodore Francis Green, Claiborne Pell and John and Lincoln Chafee to the Senate. (Rhode Island political cognoscenti will recall that Whitehouse and Flanders share a personal connection to former Democratic Gov. Bruce Sundlun. Whitehouse was Sundlun's Statehouse legal counsel and Flanders was his personal lawyer. It was Flanders who defended Sundlun during one of the governor's more bizarre episodes -- when he shot raccoons on his property).

Flanders doesn’t have a clear path to the nomination. Conservative Coventry State Rep. Bobby Nardolillo is running and has scheduled a formal announcement next month.

What’s impossible to divine at this point is what the national Zeitgeist will look like.  The country is sharply divided. Trump’s approval numbers are in the Dumpster. And who knows how the economy, Syria or health care policies will resonate a year from now?

This we know – the left-leaning Democratic base is enraged and engaged. If this activism persists and Republicans and independents are as wary of Trump as they are today, the climate would be difficult for any Republican. A candidate like Flanders would have to make the race about two individuals – he and Whitehouse – and their credentials. A Whitehouse campaign would seek to have the debate about national issues and the direction of the country.

Democrats would probably drag out the reliable saw about party senate control . But the Senate isn’t likely to switch from red to blue next year; Democrats are defending 25 seats while Republicans have just 9 members up. Democrats have incumbents in such red states as Montana, Indiana and Missouri; Republicans are defending just one seat in a state carried by Hillary Clinton – Nevada.

Recent Senate elections from Pasadena to Providence have resembled European-style parliamentary contests, with party and national topics paramount.

Jennifer Duffy is a Rhode Island native who closely follows senate elections for the non-partisan Cook Political report in Washington, D.C. If Whitehouse has a voter weakness, she says, it’s in the category ``of what have you done for me lately.’’

Rhode Island is a state with economic issues; we lag behind our neighbors in Connecticut and Massachusetts in attracting new jobs. Reed has long deflected this issue by boasting of his work on behalf of submarine builders at Electric Boat. Whitehouse’s emphasis has been on environmental and climate change issues – very relevant to the future of the Ocean State but not an immediate job generator. So a Republican would try to use the economy as a wedge.

The other factor on the Republican side is a primary joust between Flanders and Nardolillo. Nardolillo is not Flanders intellectual equal, but if he can excite the tiny Republican base around such issues as immigration, abortion and guns, he could make life miserable for Flanders. Moderates have not been doing well in Republican senate primaries of late.

Duffy ranks Whitehouse as a solid favorite for reelection. Perhaps Flanders will look at the contest and decide the hill is too steep. In that event, Republicans could come to their senses and urge him to take on Democratic Gina Raimondo, a campaign that today looks more winnable than a senate run.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at Ripr.org