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Will Whitehouse cruise to a second term?

February 24, 2012

Rhode Island’s U.S. Senate election this year ought to generate interest, excitement and debate. But so far it has yielded only yawns, says RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay.

Last week’s Brown University public opinion survey carried little in the way of good news for incumbent  Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. Almost 60 percent of respondents think the Newport Democrat is only a fair or poor job. And his good or excellent ratings are only about 30 percent.

Whitehouse is part of a divided Congress that is widely seen as unpopular in every respected national poll. Rhode Island has one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates and state government is awash in red ink.

A Congress split between Republicans and Democrats acting like children fighting at recess isn’t doing much to help struggling states like ours. Gone are the days of federal stimulus dollars flowing in to help states avoid deficits and keep public workers on the job.

Whitehouse is in his first term, a time when Senate incumbents are usually most vulnerable. His knee-jerk liberalism is ripe for attack at a time when conservatives are motivated and vocal.

So why does Rhode Island native Jennifer Duffy of the non-partisan Cook Political Report handicap Whitehouse as the solid favorite to win reelection?

Look no further than the feckless Rhode Island Republican Party and its only candidate so far, Newport businessman Barry Hinckley.

It is sad that money has become such an overwhelming force in politics. Hinckley’s biggest problem is that he doesn’t have nearly enough to mount a serious campaign. While Whitehouse is sitting on a campaign chest of more than $3 million, Hinckley has only $175,000, barely enough for a two-week run of television ads.

Contrast Hinckley’s money harvest with that of   Republican Brendan Doherty, who is organizing a race for Congress in the 1st District against Democrat David Cicilline, who looks increasingly vulnerable. Doherty has raised more than $500,000 and is moving his feet all over the district. Bumpers along the east side of Narragansett Bay are already sprouting DOHERTY stickers and just about every day there is a report of yet another fund-raising event for the former state police superintendent.

And Hinckley doesn’t seem able to capitalize on Whitehouse’s weaknesses. Exhibit A was last week’s visit by to Providence Vice-President Joe Biden, who appeared at a Democratic fund-raiser for Whitehouse.

There is one issue that is tops among all others in Rhode Island – jobs and the faltering economy. Yet, instead of focusing on jobs during the Biden visit, Hinckley’s campaign got mired in a silly, high-school style joust over a vice-presidential news release that contained a typographical error over the spelling of Rhode (Road) Island.

Duffy, the Senate election watcher, says that even though Whitehouse is not well-defined among many voters, Hinckley has a deeper problem: Few voters know who the Republican is and he doesn’t have enough money to drive his messages.

Whitehouse is well-regarded among Democrats in Washington; he is seen as smart, hard-working and capable of scaling the leadership ladder in the Senate. Don’t be surprised if he becomes his party’s Senate campaign chief for the 2014 election cycle.

Whitehouse also has a long resume in politics and public service. He has been attorney general, U.S. Attorney, legal counsel to a governor, the state’s top business regulator and an unsuccessful candidate for his party’s governor nomination. Whitehouse pays attention to Rhode Island and has an aggressive staff. Yes, he is a staunch liberal, but Rhode Islanders have been sending liberals to the Senate forever: think Theodore Francis Green, John Pastore, Claiborne Pell and Jack Reed.

And Whitehouse can ride the arc of history: Rhode Islanders have only twice rejected incumbent U.S. senators since the advent of direct election of senators in 1913. Once was during the Great Depression. The other was Whitehouse’s upset of then-Republican Lincoln Chafee in 2006 during the backlash against the Bush Administration and the Iraq War. In this presidential year, Democratic voter turnout is likely to be high.

Hinckley has never been in a significant public role. Unless he wakes up fast, he appears doomed to become yet another Rhode Island Republican politician who is under the illusion that the U.S. Senate is an entry-level job.


Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40. You can also follow his political reporting at RIPR’s `On Politics’ blog at






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