Sheldon Whitehouse,
Stew Milne  /  AP
Democratic Sheldon Whitehouse will face off against Sen. Lincoln Chafee on Nov. 7, in a race that could determine whether the Democrats regain control of the Senate.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 9/14/2006 6:34:28 PM ET 2006-09-14T22:34:28

We often hear candidates say, “Vote for the man, not the party.” But in Rhode Island this year, Democratic Senate candidate Sheldon Whitehouse is inverting that formula.

As he tries to oust liberal Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee , Whitehouse’s pitch is: vote for the party, vote for a Democratic majority in the Senate.

More than any other Democratic candidate I have reported on this year, Whitehouse is overtly and repeatedly telling voters that it’s the party — and the party’s chance for a Senate majority -- that truly matters, and less so the man himself.

“We could well be the key right here in Rhode Island to a Democratic Senate in Washington, a Democratic Senate that will stand up to George Bush, a Democratic Senate that will say ‘no’ to him when he needs to be told ‘no,’” Whitehouse told a campaign dinner in a working-class section of East Providence this week.

At another stop a few days later in Warwick, he told an audience of senior citizens, “People often say Rhode Island is a very little state. Well, it can make a very, very big difference…. We could be the state that tips the balance between a Republican Senate and a Dem Senate. We know what a Republican Senate will do: they cover for George Bush; they won’t investigate anything and they implement his agenda.”

He told reporters, “It’s not just individual agreements and disagreements between Lincoln Chafee and I; it’s the structure of power in Washington that’s at stake here.”

Whitehouse did admit that there’s a chance the Democrats could fall short of a Senate majority and — yes, of course, he’d still like to win his race, even if he serves in the minority.

An eye on '08
“Even if we miss by one or two in this cycle, 2008 is coming right behind, we have got to get the seats that we can,” Whitehouse said.

Whitehouse’s argument is diametrically opposite to the one being used by a Democrat with whom he’d serve in the Senate if he did win on Nov. 7, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

Unlike Whitehouse, Nelson is a conservative on issues such as abortion.

According to Congressional Quarterly’s ratings, last year Nelson supported Bush on roll call votes 76 percent of the time — making him a better Bush man than Chafee is.

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“My votes have been the same regardless of who has been in charge,” Nelson said last May. “Voters know that it won’t matter who is the majority leader.”

But Whitehouse says it does matter, in fact, it’s all that matters.

Whitehouse’s argument is interesting because it reminds Rhode Islanders of something that’s always true, but rarely noted: whether or not the Rhode Island Democratic voter gets his wish for a Democratic-controlled Senate depends on thousands of voters he’s never met, in Montana, Missouri, Ohio, and Pennsylvania — states where Democrats have a fair chance to take Republican seats.

The Rhode Islander’s wish also hinges on voters in Maryland, Minnesota and New Jersey, where there’s a possibility that Republicans might take Democratic-held seats.

2006 key races

The Senate’s current division is 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats (we include Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords with the Democrats because he usually votes with them.)

Another reason that Whitehouse is reminding voters that party matters above all is that Chafee is using the opposite argument: the man matters more than the party label.

The maverick
Chafee portrays himself as the maverick who’ll vote his conscience, even if he means defying the other 54 Republican senators and Bush.

Chafee has voted ‘no’ on one Bush idea after another: when all his Republican colleagues voted to confirm Bush’s nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, Chafee was the lonely ‘no’ vote.

In August, Chafee voted “no” on a package to cut the estate tax.

The only other Republican joining him was Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio.

Whitehouse says it is merely an appearance of independence, not the substance. For instance, when Chafee cites his “no” vote on Bush’s Medicare prescription drug entitlement, Whitehouse points out that right before he cast that vote, Chafee voted “no” on the procedural move that could have stopped the drug entitlement.

Yet Chafee keeps at it: in his pre-primary TV ads, Chafee showcased Rhode Islanders calling him “a man of integrity” and declaring, “Lincoln Chafee puts people above party.”

Chafee himself appeared in the ad to say, “I believe that neither Republicans nor Democrats are always right.”

A tougher opponent
Given his independent image, Rhode Island Democrats say Chafee will be tougher to defeat than Steve Laffey, the conservative who Chafee beat in the GOP primary.

“I think Whitehouse has an easier time with Laffey than with Chafee,” said Democratic state senator Stephen Alves outside a polling place in Cranston, R.I. on Tuesday, a few hours before Chafee defeated Laffey.

Despite Chafee’s clashes with Bush, Whitehouse tries hard to link him with Bush — and with that man loathed by Democrats, Karl Rove.

Whitehouse urges Rhode Island Democrats to take note of “just how hard George Bush and Karl Rove are fighting to try to keep Linc Chafee in power. You know they don’t agree with him that much, but they’re about one thing and one thing only: the power of that vote that sets up the Senate under Republican leadership.”

If voters were to cast ballots strictly on the party line, Whitehouse would now be buying his Acela Express tickets to Washington and leasing a condo on Capitol Hill.

Rhode Island has more than 236,000 registered Democrats, more than three times as many voters as the Republicans have.

The decisive votes are those of the 365,658 independent voters.

Do they want a Senate Democratic majority as much as Whitehouse and hard-core Democrats do?

Or will they choose to “vote for the man, not the party”?

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