Dark Rhode: The Effort to Silence Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse

It’s obvious why they want him gone.

If you watched last week’s Senate confirmation hearings for unqualified Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, you saw just how effective Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) can be when it comes to challenging right-wing ideology. Gorsuch was intellectually overpowered by Whitehouse, a former US Attorney and state Attorney General.

Whitehouse is arguably the right’s biggest nuisance. Conservatives cannot stand his criticism of the special interests responsible for destroying democracy in the United States in the seven years since the Citizens United decision. They cannot stand his condemnation of the fossil fuel industry on the Senate floor, and his full-throated call for the return of bipartisan action on climate change. They cannot stand his strict scrutiny of the Trump administration.

If the Senate changes hands in the 2018 midterm elections, Whitehouse will have a more prominent platform to tear apart conservative claptrap. As David Bernstein noted last year, had Democrats won the Senate in 2016, Whitehouse would have likely become chair of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, currently in the clutches of arch-denier John Barrasso (R-WY). Whitehouse as EPW chair would be a nightmare for Carbon Inc.–a nightmare the fossil-fuel industry and its allied interests would rather avoid.

You may recall Marlon Brando’s line from Apocalypse Now, referring to Martin Sheen’s character as an “errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.” It looks like right-wingers may have found their errand boy to go after Whitehouse next year:

[State Representative] Robert “Bobby” Nardolillo has decided to wait until May to publicly announce whether he is running for the U.S. Senate against the two-term Democratic incumbent, Sheldon Whitehouse.

On March 2, Nardolillo filed a statement of candidacy for the U.S. Senate with the Federal Elections Commission. The filing positioned him to start raising money toward a potential 2018 run for the seat Whitehouse has held since ousting then-Republican Lincoln D. Chafee in the November 2006 election. Nardolillo’s campaign committee name: “Bobby 4 Senate.”

Nardolillo’s Republican allies anticipated an announcement this coming Monday in his hometown of Coventry.

But Nardolillo, a 37-year-old funeral director, told The Journal on Monday: “This is an extremely important day for me. I really want my parents to be in attendance. They don’t return home from [Florida] until May. So, I’m [going to do] some work with my team and fundraising.”

Nardolillo shouldn’t have any problem raising money, considering the large number of polluters and plutocrats in this country who want rid of Whitehouse. Anyone who thinks New England Republicans are less reactionary than Republicans in other parts of the country may want to reconsider:

One of only 11 Republicans in the 75-member Rhode Island House of Representatives, Nardolillo has made “illegal immigration” one of his signature issues.

He is currently seeking support from the Democrat-dominated House for a resolution urging Congress to change federal law to allow proof of citizenship as a requirement for registering to vote.

Other Nardolillo bills seek to resurrect former Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri’s “E-Verify” executive order. One would require the state to use the federal government’s E-Verify program to electronically verify the validity of social security numbers “to ensure that all employees of the executive department are legally eligible to be employed in the United States.” Another would require sheriffs to verify the immigration status of every incarcerated person brought into court, and notify federal immigration officials of anyone “lacking legal immigration status.”

Of course, Nardolillo believes “Whitehouse spends too much time talking about climate change and not enough about the economy.” That the economy will be severely impacted by human-caused climate change seems to be lost on this fellow. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean he will lose.

Much like John Kingston’s likely challenge to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, this is a race that progressives would be well-advised not to ignore. In a post-Citizens United world, one cannot take the outcome of any Senate race for granted. Don’t underestimate Big Oil’s desire to finally shut Whitehouse up and force him out of the Senate. Don’t underestimate Nardolillo’s ability to demagogue his way into a competitive contest, especially with millions of dollars in dark money serving as a megaphone for his malicious message. Don’t underestimate, for one second, the importance of this race.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.