Balance of power is both cause and effect in R.I.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) admits to getting down on himself over the last few weeks and to feeling apprehensive about the negative campaigning that engulfed his race against Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey. And the relief of emerging from all of that with a win shone on the broad smile on his face Tuesday night during his victory speech.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) admits to getting down on himself over the last few weeks and to feeling apprehensive about the negative campaigning that engulfed his race against Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey. And the relief of emerging from all of that with a win shone on the broad smile on his face Tuesday night during his victory speech.

After naming every office he has ever run for, he told the crowd of supporters at the top of the Providence Biltmore Hotel, “I’ve never had one like this.”

If polls and national party interest are any indication, he’s about to have another race just as heated and hard-fought, and it should be key to the balance of power in the Senate. The candidates recognize this and are using the national picture in their campaigns.

With the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) needing six seats to win a majority in the chamber, the match-up between Chafee and Democratic nominee Sheldon Whitehouse appears to give the opposition party a sixth bona fide takeover opportunity.

The two have polled within a few points of one another and start the eight-week race in a virtual dead heat.

Maureen Moakley, a state politics expert at the University of Rhode Island, said there is nothing to suggest the general election race won’t be just as competitive as the primary, which Chafee won 54-46.

“It’s going to be neck and neck, and it’s going to be closer than this one,” Moakley said, adding that there is “very little difference between the two of them” on the issues.

The five takeover opportunities the DSCC has previously cited are Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. Recent events and polls in Virginia suggest it could join the fold as well, and Arizona has a well-funded Democratic candidate, but neither is demographically as appealing as Rhode Island.

The Ocean State has had a Republican in its Washington delegation for 30 years – Chafee succeeded his father, Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.), who held the seat from 1976 until his death in 1999. But there are more than three registered Democrats here for every Republican.

Chafee has accepted the help of the national party almost reluctantly, and he said after his victory speech Tuesday that it was “unlikely” President Bush would campaign for him, for “obvious reasons” —the president’s low poll numbers. Chafee declined to vote for Bush in 2004, instead voting for his father, President George H.W. Bush, and he has strayed from the party on several other issues, including the war in Iraq, tax cuts and the nomination of Justice Samuel Alito.

Jennifer Duffy, of the Cook Political Report, said Laffey’s loss has to be disappointing for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Laffey was polling 30 points behind Whitehouse in a hypothetical general election match-up, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee wasn’t going to support him if  he won the primary.

She also said Chafee and Whitehouse present similar ideologies.

“The difference is that Chafee has a voting record and Whitehouse doesn’t,” Duffy said. “And I’m sure that [Whitehouse] will cull that for everything it’s worth.”

Whitehouse said the main difference between the two of them is party affiliation. He emphasizes the pivotal nature Rhode Island will play in Democrats’ efforts to take the Senate and has made the national picture part of his campaign.

“There is a real prospect of Democratic leadership,” Whitehouse told The Hill yesterday. “[Chafee] has, by and large, been somebody who has been willing to accommodate the Bush administration.”

Moakley said Whitehouse is well-known and that it will be interesting to see what kind of tone he sets after staying “above the fray” throughout the primary. Whitehouse’s primary victory was never in doubt, and he has therefore had the luxury of focusing his efforts on his possible Republican opponents instead of a fellow Democrat.

While Chafee and Laffey spent a great deal of money in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s primary, Whitehouse, who has already raised $1 million more than either candidate, casually met with voters at one of dozens of community dinners.

The dinner in East Providence on the eve of the primary drew hundreds of supporters, plus some people just there for a free meal. The former state attorney general made the rounds and hugged or shook hands with just about everyone. But he wasn’t asking for primary votes.

Whitehouse has been rather an afterthought so far, often not even being referred to by name in national media accounts of the Republican primary, but Moakley and Duffy said people in Rhode Island are well aware of his candidacy and know it will be a tight race.

Duffy said Whitehouse has used the primary time to work on the problems that sank his 2002 gubernatorial run in the primary—mostly that he is a stiff candidate out of touch with voters.

Chafee’s campaign manager, Ian Lang, said Tuesday that the campaign has more than $500,000 on hand despite the difficult primary. Whitehouse had more than $1.5 million in his most recent filing. The national parties are expected to pour millions into this tiny state of about one million people.

Chafee said the national party was instrumental in his win Tuesday but also stressed the support he has received from groups such as the Sierra Club and the Chamber of Commerce. He also stressed the national picture’s role in the race and said that it is important for Rhode Island to have a bipartisan delegation.

“I’m sure his campaign is going to be that ‘the majority of the Senate’s at stake,’” Chafee said of Whitehouse, “and mine’s going to be, ‘We need at least one member of the delegation looking out for Rhode Island as Congress and the presidents change back and forth.’”