The Rhode Island Senate race between incumbent Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse and Republican challenger Robert Flanders is not on anyone’s radar as competitive.

It should be.

The Cook Political Report rates it a Safe Democrat seat. The Real Clear Politics profile of the race notes: “None of Whitehouse’s opponents seem likely to defeat him.” There is no public polling of the race that I’ve been able to find, perhaps because none of the major polling organizations think it’s worth the effort.

I can’t blame these professional prognosticators for writing off the Rhode Island Senate race. But I do disagree with them based on what I see on the ground here.

While no two races or situations are identical, it reminds me of what I saw in December 2009 in Massachusetts in the Scott Brown – Martha Coakley race. The contest was written off nationally. The most recent polling had Coakley ahead by almost 25 points. But I saw and felt something different, and argued on December 9, 2009, Watch Massachusetts Senate Race.

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.

I’ve lived in Rhode Island for most of the past 25 years, and continue to have a home here. Rhode Island is a Democratic State, but it’s not a liberal state. The Democrats here are more of the old-time, non-progressive, non-social justice warfare Democrats. “Independent” politicians have a storied history here and the state had a long history of electing Republicans at the statewide level, including Governors and Senators, until the age of Obama when Republicans were wiped out at the statewide federal level. Neighboring states, including Massachusetts (Gov. Charlie Baker), have shown that “independent” Republicans can win even in heavily and reliably Democratic states.

Whitehouse is prone to this narrative, if the right opponent comes along with the stature and money to make it stick.

Whitehouse cuts an elitist personna, as a favorable Rhode Island Monthly profile in October 2017 describes:

Whitehouse is the great-great-grandson of the West Coast railroad baron Charles Crocker, and with an estimated net worth of more than $6 million, he is reportedly the Ocean State’s wealthiest politician…. Whitehouse came from a socially and politically connected family — his father dated Jacqueline Bouvier before she married JFK and was known to enjoy fox hunting — and when he returned stateside, he followed a classic blue-blood educational track: prep school at St. Paul’s in New Hampshire; college at Yale; law school at the University of Virginia.

(added 8-7-2018) An August 2017 article at GoLocalProv noted Whitehouse’s membership in a highly exclusive beach club that allegedly has no non-white members:

This week Rhode Island’s junior United States Senator Sheldon Whitehouse launched a blistering series of tweets against racism and bigotry.

“The hatred and violence we are seeing in #Charlottesville is shameful. Our unity will overcome this bigotry,” Whitehouse tweeted.

But, what few Rhode Islanders or Americans may know about the outspoken Senator is that he spends his summer vacation days as a member of the wildly exclusive – and white – Spouting Rock Beach Association (SRBA) or better known as Bailey’s Beach Club.

Located on Newport’s famous Ocean’s Drive, the club has had notably wealthy members including the Vanderbilt and Astor families. And while being the playground to some of America’s richest families, SRBA’s tax status is a non-profit.

African-American journalist Adam Clayton Powell III, the former son-in-law of Eileen Slocum, the grand dame of GOP Newport politics before passing away in 2008, was known to visit the club by lieu of family ties, but did not appear to have a membership. Clayton Powell III is the son of the late New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

In a follow-up report, GoLocalProv noted (video at link):

GoLocalProv.com News Editor Kate Nagle finally caught up with U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) to ask him about his family’s membership in the exclusive and all-white Bailey’s Beach Club.

In 2006, when Whitehouse ran for the United States Senate, he reportedly promised to quit his memberships in Bailey’s, as well as the all-male, all-white Bellevue Avenue Reading Room.

However, eleven years later, a GoLocal investigation has uncovered that Whitehouse has consolidated his ownership with his wife in Bailey’s, one of America’s oldest and most exclusive beach clubs.

Whitehouse has been one of the harshest critics of the Administration of President Donald Trump and Trump’s unwillingness to condemn hate groups and bigotry.

After weeks of refusing to answer GoLocal’s questions about his membership in Bailey’s — Nagle caught up with Whitehouse attending an event in Newport.

“I think it would be nice if they (Bailey’s Beach Club) changed a little bit, but it’s not my position,” Whitehouse told Nagle.

When asked if he would pressure the club to push for diversity at the all-white club], Whitehouse said, “I will take that up privately.” He then told Nagle he had no further comment and walked away.

Whitehouse also is on the far left of the ideological chart for 2017 prepared by GovTrack.us based on bills sponsored and co-sponsored:

https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members/sheldon_whitehouse/412247

Climate change has been Whitehouse’s most prominent focus in the Senate, as the Rhode Island Monthly profile reflects:

And on his trademark issue, climate change caused by human activity, he has said that potential future effects are so grave that, if unchecked, they will completely change the landscape of our state, with rising seas turning Rhode Island into an archipelago (“Warwick Neck…becomes Warwick Neck Island,” “Warren and Bristol…get several of their own new islands”), and flooding into Providence high enough to cover the steps of City Hall….

Whitehouse was sworn into office on January 3, 2007, and, in the decade since, he has undoubtedly made his biggest mark on a single issue: climate change. He has participated in climate marches in New York City and Washington, D.C. He has helped organize a fourteen-hour talk-a-thon about climate change on the Senate floor. He has traveled to more than a dozen states — including Utah, Iowa, Georgia, Texas and West Virginia — to learn about the local effects of climate change. He has written and co-written op-eds on the issue for the Washington Post, BuzzFeed, Forbes, and USA Today. And, most famously, he has delivered more than 175 speeches on the subject on the Senate floor.

Some speeches quote scripture, others praise corporations that have taken active roles in acknowledging and addressing the problem, others describe how climate change affects public health. But every one is presented under the heading “Time to Wake Up,” which reinforces the role that Whitehouse has created for himself as the guy trying to shake everyone else out of their stupor: the Warner-in-Chief. Is it grandstanding? Is he carving a place in the annals of history? Is he a voice of sanity and reason in a chamber that has lost its grasp of both? This, of course, depends on your views of an issue that Whitehouse calls “unbelievably important to Rhode Island.” But one thing is certain: Nobody in the Senate is making as much noise about this. “He’s in a league of his own,” said Connecticut U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal in 2014.

The most recent Morning Consult survey of favorability, released in late July, shows Whitehouse with a 51% approval rating, significantly lower than Rhode Island’s other Democratic Senator, Jack Reed:

https://morningconsult.com/2018/07/25/americas-most-and-least-popular-senators-2/

That favorability rating should not be given too much weight.

In my experience here, people who like Whitehouse merely like him, while people who don’t like him hate him with a passion.

Whitehouse has a tendency to belittle and insult his political opponents. His over-the-top pejorative attacks on opponents of Obamacare, comparing them to Nazis during Kristallnacht and people who lynched blacks, caused a lot of ill will. 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.

Whitehouse also is not someone who excites people. He has enormous name recognition because he’s been in politics in one way or another for as long as anyone can remember.

He also has been lucky politically. He eked out a victory against the oddball Linc Chafee in 2006, and did not face a serious challenge in 2012. He has never faced off against someone with the stature of Flanders.

Whitehouse is being challenged in the September 6, 2018, Democrat primary by Pat Fuentes, who calls Whitehouse a “Pretend Progressive.” While it’s doubtful Fuentes poses a serious threat to Whitehouse, this may demonstrate that the far-left of the party, which is where all the enthusiasm comes, is not excited by Whitehouse.

Flanders portrays himself as an “independent Republican,” and is hitting Whitehouse right in the silver spoon. WPRI reported on his campaign announcement in November 2017:

Republican Robert Flanders kicked off his bid to become Rhode Island’s next U.S. senator on Thursday, pledging to be a Republican who won’t toe the party line while casting incumbent Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse as an out-of-touch elitist.

Flanders, 68, is a former R.I. Supreme Court associate justice and prominent local attorney. He launched his campaign in Central Falls, a city he steered through municipal bankruptcy after then-Gov. Lincoln Chafee appointed him as its receiver in 2011.

“The reason I’m doing this is, like many of you I’m dissatisfied with the hyper-partisanship that we see down in Washington, D.C., these days,” Flanders told a crowd of roughly 80 supporters at the event, held at a refurbished mill building in the city’s historic district. “The entrenched politicians who are there – there’s too much finger-pointing and not enough handshaking going on. We need problem-solvers.”

“Yes, I’m running as a Republican but I’m an independent-minded Republican,” he said. “I’m going to call balls and strikes on issues. I’m not just going to reflexively follow whatever the president or the Senate leadership or anybody else says. My mantra and my lodestar is going to be, what’s right for middle-class working families here in Rhode Island and small businesses here in the state.”

Mocking his opponent as “Silver-Spoon Sheldon,” Flanders contrasted Whitehouse’s elite upbringing with his more humble roots, including youthful stints as a dishwasher and a garbage collector.

“I don’t come from privilege and wealth,” Flanders said, adding: “It’s time to stick a fork in all the arrogance, the prosecutorial pomposity, and the climate-change bullying that have characterized his tenure.”

Dick MacAdams, a lawyer and lifelong Flanders friend, put the critique of Whitehouse more pithily: “Everyone I know would rather have a beer with Bob than a chardonnay with Sheldon.”

Flander’s first campaign ad, which has been running frequently on local TV, is quite well done and helps shape the narrative of the in-touch Flanders and out-of-touch Climate-change-obsessed Whitehouse:

I don’t think it’s coincidence that one of the key images in the video, of Whitehouse with the word “problem” superimposed (see Featured Image) includes hyper-partisans Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer.

Whitehouse is holding off on TV ads until after Labor Day:

Democratic U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse plans to start airing TV ads for his re-election campaign right after Labor Day, according to orders placed with local broadcasters.

An Eyewitness News analysis of FCC filings shows Whitehouse has so far booked about $612,000 in commercial time on WPRI 12, WJAR-TV and The CW 28 starting Sept. 4 and ending Nov. 6, the day of the election. The total is likely to rise as more orders come in for those and other stations.

A Whitehouse spokesman declined to comment on the TV buys, which were placed last week. His campaign has already been paying to air digital video ads on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram since mid-June.

Whitehouse is facing Republican Robert Flanders, a former R.I. Supreme Court justice, in his bid for a third term. The incumbent has an enormous financial advantage: Whitehouse had $3.43 million on hand as of June 30, while Flanders had $384,000.

Flanders’ campaign did not respond to a question about when it plans to buy TV time.

Whitehouse is waiting longer to go on the air than the other Democratic incumbent at the top of the ticket in Rhode Island this year, Gov. Gina Raimondo, whose campaign began airing commercials in early June and expects to stay on the air through the election.

The Rhode Island Monthly profile of Whitehouse, at a time Flanders was not yet the only Republican running, recognized that Flanders would be a formidable opponent, calling it “a must-see battle between legal and intellectual heavyweights”

The more likely — and formidable — opponent for Whitehouse on the GOP side is retired Rhode Island Supreme Court Judge Robert Flanders, who had yet to officially declare his candidacy at the time this article went to press, but has given various indications that he will.

Flanders is a blue-collar success story: he grew up in a Long Island family of seven children, the son of a salesman and a fast-food worker, and went on to graduate from Brown and Harvard Law and become a high profile defense lawyer. In addition to serving on the state’s highest court for eight years (he stepped down in 2004 to join the firm Hinckley, Allen and Snyder), he was appointed receiver for the city of Central Falls in 2011 after the city filed for bankruptcy protection. As Providence Journal political reporter Kathy Gregg has noted, when Governor Lincoln Chafee recommended Flanders for a spot on the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in 2006, Whitehouse said at the time he was a “very capable guy.” (President George W. Bush wound up going with a different nominee.) If Flanders wins the Republican primary — he recently had more than $185,000 in his campaign coffers, to Nardolillo’s $23,774 — it would set up a must-see battle between legal and intellectual heavyweights.

What Whitehouse nominally has in his favor is that Rhode Island is not a pro-Trump state. Hillary Clinton won in Rhode Island in 2016 by 55.4% to Trump’s 39.8%.

https://www.politico.com/2016-election/results/map/president/rhode-island/

But Flanders — who goes out of his way to push his independence — will be a hard target for Whitehouse to run against on an anti-Trump party line. Flanders was smart to hit the airwaves early to establish his independence.

In the fall of 2017, Kamala Harris came to Rhode Island to help fundraise for Whitehouse. Whitehouse has far more cash on hand than Flanders (figures below as of June 30, 2018; Nardillo has dropped out of the race and endorsed Flanders).

https://www.opensecrets.org/races/summary?cycle=2018&id=RIS1

But Flanders will have enough cash to make this a credible race.

Not surprisingly, Whitehouse has been at the front of the opposition to the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, writing at Slate, The Dark Money Campaign to Replace Anthony Kennedy Has Already Begun.

Flanders intends to support Kavanaugh unless the hearings disclose something unexpected. The Providence Journal reported:

Flanders said in a statement that he looked forward to the confirmation hearings. He praised Kavanaugh, a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge in Washington, D.C., as a fine jurist with a long written record of public service.

“Although I would wait to see how the hearings go before deciding whether I would vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, he comes to this appointment with the requisite background and experience. Thus, absent some unforeseen development during the Senate hearings, I would be inclined to vote favorably on this nomination,” Flanders said.

He faulted his Democratic opponent.

“Unfortunately, my opponent Sen. Whitehouse’s obstructionist record of radical knee-jerk partisanship is so extreme that if he were tasked with vetting the nomination of past Supreme Court giants such as Chief Justice John Marshall, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sandra Day O’Connor, or Louis Brandeis, he would reject them out of hand just so that he could make a scene and defy a Republican president,” Flanders said.

Rhode Island is the most heavily Catholic state in the country.  The knee-jerk and anti-Catholic line of attack taken by many Democrats against Kavanaugh could backfire if Flanders makes it an issue. But more than that, Flanders has staked out a wait and see non-partisan approach that will play favorably towards his independent image.

Flanders also has been smart to start hitting Whitehouse early, as this Op-Ed by Flanders in The Providence Journal on May 16, 2018, showed, Robert Flanders: Senator’s investments suggest opioid conflict:

My opponent, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., has blood on his hands and drug money in his pockets.

At the height of the opioid crisis, and notwithstanding hundreds of deaths in Rhode Island every year and thousands nationwide, Whitehouse sponsored legislation that made it harder for the Drug Enforcement Administration to block the flood of these addictive drugs. He has accepted campaign contributions from Big Pharma and he and his family members have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in Big Pharma companies. Countless Rhode Islanders are fed up with this D.C. double-talk and double-dealing.

Senator Whitehouse has recorded stock holdings of between $95,000 and $250,000 in one large pharmaceutical firm. His family has multiple accounts that actively traded thousands of dollars worth of stock in other drug companies, such as Gilead, Abbott, Biogen and McKesson.

Senator Whitehouse’s portfolio of investments in drug companies places him in direct conflict with multiple pieces of legislation he has voted on and sponsored. In the last two years, there have been 629 known opioid-related deaths in Rhode Island. All the while, Whitehouse has taken Big-Pharma money for his campaign and for his own wallet.

The idea that a sitting U.S. senator is profiting from this crisis — both politically and personally — is appalling. It’s time that Senator Whitehouse showed a spine, stood up to the Big Pharma interests that have fostered this crisis, and said: “enough is enough.”

Whitehouse’s spokesman responded rather meekly

Separately, Whitehouse spokeswoman Meaghan McCabe called Whitehouse a national leader in fighting the opioid crisis.

“His landmark Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act passed into law a range of policies to combat the misuse of prescription drugs, including expanding prescription drug monitoring programs that have proven to help reduce diversion,” McCabe said. “He has also fought to increase federal funding to combat the opioid crisis, including the $3.3 billion that passed as part of the recent spending deal.”

Flanders also is hitting Whitehouse on his newly-found disdain for corporate PAC money, Flanders on Why Whitehouse Should Write a $3 Million Check.

Rhode Island Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Bob Flanders appeared on GoLocal LIVE with a $3 million check — that he said incumbent Senator Sheldon Whitehouse should donate, as the amount of all the PAC money he has received to date — after Whitehouse announced he would take no PAC money moving forward.

“This is a check for Senator Whitehouse to consider writing — he recently announced he won’t take any future PAC donations,” said Flanders. “So we said why doesn’t he donate all he’s gotten from PACs to an organization for term limits?”

“If it’s bad money now…give it all back or to an organization,” said Flanders.

In addition to the above, you need to know the personalities involved.

I don’t know Bob Flanders well, and only had passing contact with him when I practiced law in Rhode Island until I joined Cornell Law School in 2007. But I do know that Flanders is someone who is used to achieving, as his biography shows. The local legal community knows that. I guarantee you Sheldon Whitehouse knows that. Anyone who underestimates or writes-off Bob Flanders does so at his or her peril.

I’m not saying that Whitehouse will lose. Or even that he’s the underdog. Clearly, given the power of incumbency and his bankroll, Whitehouse is the favorite.

What I am saying is that this could shape up to be the surprise of the year.

If all politics is local, you need to understand the local factors. Those factors tell me that this will be a competitive race, certainly more competitive than currently forecast.