Could Sheldon Whitehouse suddenly find himself vulnerable to a Republican challenger in deep-blue Rhode Island? Almost certainly not, but it’s certainly fun to play out this string anyway. Bob Flanders launched a new ad highlighting the most excruciatingly embarrassing five minutes in recent Senate history — Whitehouse’s cross-examination of Brett Kavanaugh over high-school yearbook entries such as
“boofed,” and “Devil’s Triangle.” Whitehouse demanded that Kavanaugh cop to them as sexual references … as though a teenage boy talking about sex was evidence of anything but being a teenage boy.
Flanders calls it “Gasbag,” which fits perfectly:
The most hilarious part of this is that Whitehouse seems to be completely enthralled with himself as he sets supposed perjury traps for Kavanaugh — over teen slang from 36 years ago. Unfortunately for Whitehouse, he skipped over the part where cross-examiners do research and figure out the answers ahead of time. It turns out that “boof” was well-enough known as a slang for flatulence to be included in a book about it, and four other boys from Georgetown Prep testified that “Devil’s Triangle” was indeed a drinking game.
Perry Mason he ain’t.
In a just world, a performance as ridiculous and self-important as this would cost a politician his job. Rhode Island, however, is one of the deepest-blue states in the country. Whitehouse won his last election in 2012 by thirty points, and Hillary Clinton won the state by 16 points two years ago. In the only poll of the state thus far this cycle, Flanders trailed Whitehouse by 19 points, 54/35. Whitehouse looks unassailable.
Or does he? Our friend William Jacobson wrote on Thursday that a local radio host’s sources told him that Whitehouse’s internal polling shows signs of a collapse in support:
Local radio host John DePetro reports, Flanders gaining on Sheldon Whitehouse as Rhode Island U.S. Senate seat is up for grabs:
“Here comes Bob Flanders. The Rhode Island U.S. Senate race has heated up as Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has watched his poll numbers collapse in the aftermath of his embarrassing performance questioning Brett Kavanaugh.
“The Flanders campaign has gone into full gear as the race has moved into a single digit lead for Whitehouse. A poll last month by WPRI had Sheldon at 54% and Flanders at 35%, however the numbers have changed. Democrat sources say new internal numbers show Sheldon Whitehouse at 47% and Flanders at 40%, with 13% undecided. Whitehouse has watched his numbers with Independent voters collapse and his numbers with men have fallen significantly.”
I heard the same thing, that Whitehouse’s internal polling showed him ahead by high single digits. I repeatedly emailed Whitehouse’s campaign manager for comment, but never received a response.
I’d love to think this was accurate. It certainly would be a just outcome. However, it’s one source on one internal poll, so it’s almost impossible to credit this as a significant development. Perhaps it might induce some of the regional or national pollsters to take a closer look at Rhode Island, where the one poll was taken just as the Washington Post first reported the allegation against Kavanaugh from Christine Blasey Ford. The political landscape has changed greatly since then.
But has the Kavanaugh Effect hit in a Democrat stronghold like Rhode Island? If it has, Democrats might have some big trouble on their hands. Without more data, though, we can only chalk that up to speculation.
Addendum: My column at The Week noted that Democrats have a problem in another deep-blue bastion even apart from the Kavanaugh Effect. If they have to start defending Whitehouse along with Robert Menendez, it’s going to leave some incumbents twisting in the wind:
Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who beat the rap in a corruption trial earlier this year, finds himself in a shocking neck-and-neck race with political upstart Bob Hugin in the deep-blue Garden State. A new Stockton University poll of likely voters shows Menendez only leading 45 percent to 43 percent in a state Clinton carried 55 to 41 in 2016. Another likely-voter poll from Fairleigh Dickinson gave Menendez a six-point lead, but only 43 percent of the vote — a very low number for an incumbent of the state’s dominant party. No likely-voter poll has given Menendez more than 45 percent support this year.
That’s not a very good omen for a man who won his last election by 19 points. So what’s changed? For one thing, FiveThirtyEight‘s Clare Malone points out, the scandal of the corruption trial has corroded Menendez’s standing with voters. He claimed the result vindicated him, but both the Stockton and Fairleigh Dickinson polls put his unfavorable ratings above 50 percent. Almost a quarter of Democratic likely voters in one poll still remain undecided between Menendez and Hugin, who’s running as a pro-choice, pro-same-sex-marriage Republican. Undecideds of any stripe tend to break away from the incumbent as the election approaches, and with unfavorables this high, Menendez may be in for a long night. …
If the catalyst for this enthusiasm is the Kavanaugh confirmation process, it’s also a question of where it will be felt most. That will likely be in the red states Trump carried, which means that those incumbent Senate Democrats that seemed safe a few weeks ago might be in real trouble. Two likely-voter polls taken in North Dakota during the hearings put incumbent Democrat Heidi Heitkamp down double digits to GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer after having spent much of the cycle within the margin of error. Democrat Joe Donnelly still leads in Indiana, but he’s dropped from 51 percent support in an NBC/Marist poll in late August to 43 percent in two successive Fox News likely-voter polls. In Tennessee, where Democrats hoped to swipe a seat from retiring Republican Bob Corker, Democratic Rep. Marsha Blackburn has surged into the lead over former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen.
This makes holding onto the New Jersey seat even more critical for Democrats. To do so, however, the party may have to shift resources into the Garden State that would normally go to defending incumbents in less friendly states or to play offense on the few vulnerable Republican seats up for grabs. Even that might not be enough to stave off an angered Republican base in their home states.