Sheldon Whitehouse Challengers Enter the Field

The race for a seat in the US Senate has taken shape in Rhode Island as overwhelming favorite, incumbent Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, faces challenges in both a Democratic primary (against Patricia Fontes) and from the ramped-up campaign of endorsed Republican candidate Judge Bob Flanders, who expects to contest Whitehouse in the general election this November.

While a poll conducted earlier this spring by Whitehouse’s campaign team indicated that Whitehouse would defeat potential primary opponent Lincoln Chafee in a landslide, 81-year-old anti-war activist Patricia Fontes sees an opportunity to take on the incumbent in a primary contest focused on what she describes as Whitehouse’s unDemocrat-like support for a bloated defense budget, the role the military-industrial complex performs in the state’s political economy, and on local environmental issues surrounding the proposed Burrillville power plant. With a core base of support among various grassroots activist and student groups, including Brown War Watch, Fontes declared her candidacy in late June and has hit the ground running with her message.

“I was in (a) confrontation with Whitehouse in Westerly where I had asked him the most searching questions I could about two topics. First, financing the war, and secondly, possibly putting a halt to The Authorization For Use of Military Force by The President, specifically in Yemen. He gave me answers, but I wasn’t really satisfied, so I waited until after (the event) to go and speak with him, and that’s when he made the remark that has already become famous: ‘If you won’t vote for me, then who are you going to vote for?’ I was flustered, and I just said to him, ‘I would rather not vote than to vote for you.’ I left that room saying, ‘There must be an alternative, there must be choice,’” Fontes told me during a recent episode of The Bartholomewtown Podcast.

On July 16, Fontes announced via her Twitter account that she had collected more than 1,700 signatures on her nomination papers, exceeding the required 1,000 signatures and, pending scrutiny, that she will officially be engaged in a primary contest with Senator Whitehouse.

“I think it would be a useful thing to have a person who’s had a wide experience of people and life,” the educator, longtime human rights activist and Occupy Providence member told me.

While Ms. Fontes continues to build her campaign against Senator Whitehouse largely from the political left, former Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Bob Flanders recently secured the state Republican party’s endorsement for Senate, prompting his only potential Republican primary opponent, Representative Bobby Nardolillo, to withdraw from the race, clearing the way for Judge Flanders to focus on the general election, most likely against Senator Whitehouse.

Front and center in Judge Flanders’ message is his belief that Senator Whitehouse has become vastly too partisan, and that Rhode Island would benefit from having a Republican ally in the upper chamber.

“It would help and behoove us here to have someone who can have a seat at the policy making table instead of just throwing rotten tomatoes at whoever is trying to make policy. Work with them, get things done for Rhode Island, compromise, and find solutions that will help us. I think [Senator Whitehouse] has become an attack dog for the left and the Democratic Party, and he’s not working across the aisle enough to get things done. He’s had 12 years of doing little to nothing except go on and on about climate change ad nauseam. Sure, we’re concerned about climate change, but there are other things, in my opinion, that are more pressing that we need to focus on. He’s been a Johnny-one-note.”

In challenging Senator Whitehouse from the political right, Judge Flanders indicated that he would support the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to The Supreme Court of The United States, offered a somewhat vague answer to a question related to gun control — instead shifting the focus to beefing-up school security — and positioned himself as open to an increase in military operations overseas, including further US involvement in Yemen.

He was, however, careful to distance himself from President Donald Trump and Senate leadership during a podcast taping that I conducted with him.

“We need to get back to the independent minded Republican. That’s what I’m positioning myself as. I’m not doing this to align myself with President Trump, I’m not doing it to please Mitch McConnell, I’m doing it for one reason: I want to help Rhode Island.”

While my conversations with both Ms. Fontes and Judge Flanders yielded many predictable differences between the two on issues of foreign policy, immigration and healthcare, they also revealed several significant overlaps in their campaigns against Senator Whitehouse: a focus on niche issues that have passionate bases of support and activism; playing into an urgency for change felt by many potential voters; an immense uphill battle in terms of name recognition, funding and research, and; strikingly similar positions on reproductive rights.

Both Fontes and Flanders offered similarly vague positions on abortion issues, with neither Fontes nor Flanders serving as vocal advocates for reproductive rights, offering Whitehouse an opportunity to position himself as having a dramatically more concrete stance on this issue. While neither Fontes nor Flanders suggested that they expect Roe v. Wade to be overturned, and each defended the notion that abortion is a personal decision and should be examined politically differently than personally, neither candidate indicated to me that they explicitly identify as pro-choice.

While Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is a popular figure in Rhode Island and undoubtedly the favorite at all phases of this contest, both Patricia Fontes and Judge Bob Flanders hope that their messages will resonate with enough potential voters to be able to mount serious challenges — and engage platform dialogue and debate with Senator Whitehouse — as the primary and general election dates loom.

To hear complete Bartholomewtown podcast episodes with Patricia Fontes and Judge Flanders, visit bartholomewtown.com or RIpodcast.com or find us on Apple Podcasts.

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