Robert Flanders is the Republican challenger to Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.

This race, rated as safe for Whitehouse, should not be ignored. I explained why in my August 5, 2018 post, RI Senate Race could be the big surprise of 2018.

In order for Flanders to overcome Whitehouse’s near-universal name recognition, enormous bankroll, and Democrat-friendly electorate, the Flanders campaign is going to have to do a lot of things right. Flanders needs to peak on Election Day, with a fed up electorate going the polls out of disgust to vote in a rough Governor’s race pulling the anti-establishment lever for Flanders.

One of the things Flanders needs to do is to define Whitehouse, and to make it stick. I wrote:

What I see in Rhode Island is a race that could shape up as a narrative of an undistinguished elitist highly-partisan professional politician from a wealthy blue blood family line obsessed with liberal issues not directly relevant to Rhode Islanders (Whitehouse) versus an independent non-politician from a working class background who rose to prominence in law through his own efforts, ultimately serving on the Rhode Island Supreme Court among other accomplishments (Flanders).

Don’t underestimate this narrative if it takes hold.

Flanders also needs to generate free media. With a miniscule war chest compared to Whitehouse, Flanders can’t match Whitehouse in an on-air battle unless Flanders does it in a way that earns media coverage and forces Whitehouse onto defense.

The Flanders campaign apparently has decided that the way to define Whitehouse is to mock Whitehouse’s obsession with climate change. It was a theme in Flanders’ initial campaign ad, which both introduced Flanders as a Senate candidate and mocked Whitehouse:

Sheldon Whitehouse is so obsessed with climate change, it’s become something of a joke, so it makes sense for Flanders to focus on that. It’s far removed from the reality of Rhode Islanders’ day-to-day lives, and it’s something that is prone to scaremongering.

Just yesterday, Whitehouse ” tweeted how The Flood Is Coming:

https://twitter.com/SenWhitehouse/status/1034833976899366912

Flanders has rolled out his second TV ad focusing again on Whitehouse and Climate Change, ending with an older woman calling Whitehouse a “Doofus”:

Judge Bob Flanders for U.S. Senate from Bob Flanders on Vimeo.

It may seem to an outsider that calling Whitehouse a “doofus” is needless name calling. But I bet if you stopped Rhode Islanders on the street and asked for word association with Whitehouse, that word (or something similar) would be popular. I don’t know if the Flanders campaign focus grouped it or just did their own word association, but I suspect it’s not for nothin’ that they chose that line of attack.

Well-known local lawyer and Flanders friend Dick McAdams summed up what might be the Flanders strategy:

 “Everyone I know would rather have a beer with Bob than a chardonnay with Sheldon.”

Whitehouse can hardly complain about name calling since he compared opponents of Obamacare to Nazis during Kristallnacht and people who lynched blacks. Dana Milbank at WaPo noted at the time:

… Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) had just delivered an overwrought jeremiad comparing the Republicans to Nazis on Kristallnacht, lynch mobs of the South, and bloodthirsty crowds of the French Revolution.

“Too many colleagues are embarked on a desperate, no-holds-barred mission of propaganda, obstruction and fear,” he said. “History cautions us of the excesses to which these malignant, vindictive passions can ultimately lead. Tumbrils have rolled through taunting crowds. Broken glass has sparkled in darkened streets. Strange fruit has hung from southern trees.” Assuming the role of Old Testament prophet, Whitehouse promised a “day of judgment” and a “day of reckoning” for Republicans.

Can Flanders brand Sheldon the Doofus like Trump branded “Low-Energy Jeb” and “Little Marco”? Such branding only works if there’s some truth to it.

The ad has earned plenty of free media, including a report in The Providence Journal:

In a new TV ad scheduled to run Wednesday for the first time, Republican U.S. Senate candidate — and former Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice — Bob Flanders brands incumbent Sheldon Whitehouse a one-issue candidate with blinders on to everything but “climate change.”

Infused with a heavy dose of humor and a kazoo, the 30-second spot features an actor, identified as Sheldon Whitehouse, answering every question he is asked, including the speed he was driving and the wine he prefers, with the same answer: “climate change.”

Meanwhile, headlines waft by about Rhode Island’s 2012 “7th worst housing market,” 2014 “highest unemployment rate” and 2018 ranking in the “top 10 in opioid deaths.”

“If climate change is your only issue, Sheldon Whitehouse is your senator,″ an unseen narrator says. “Sheldon is kind of a doofus,″ adds a gray-haired woman, with a quizzical look on her face….

Flanders’ spokesman Robert Ensign said the new ad — the second Flanders has aired since announcing his candidacy — is running on all three networks, cable and digital media through September. Asked the size of the buy, he said, “the campaign put $125k behind the ad.” He said the ad will run “through September.″

https://vimeo.com/287045153

There also was coverage of the ad in GoLocalProv and WPRI.

A $125,000 ad buy goes a lot further in Rhode Island than in most states, but it will be small change compared to the boatload of TV ads we can expect Whitehouse to drop after Labor Day.

The question is, will Whitehouse go negative?

If he does, it will be a sign that Flanders is making progress, and Whitehouse is on defense.