Will those bread-and-butter conservative stands play in a general election in a blue state like Rhode Island?

I think this year is going to really focus on economic issues. The state is fairly liberal on social issues, it always has been, even though it’s the most Catholic state in the country as a percentage of the voters. It’s fairly like the rest of New England; it’s fairly blue by most measures.

Rhode Island seems to be bucking the trend this cycle—in a year in which Republicans look set to make gains, Democrat Frank Caprio and Chafee the independent are polling best in the gubernatorial contest. Why haven’t the Republicans been able to capitalize on the national anti-Democrat mood?

The Republicans aren’t as well financed here. I also think a lot of people see Caprio as a conservative Democrat and Chafee is kind of a moderate Republican. And a lot of people still have their allegiances to Chafee from the liberal side of the Republican Party, the old New England Yankee side of the party.

Caprio has raised by far the most money of any candidates. How has that helped him in the race?

I think it helped him push his primary opponent, attorney general Patrick Lynch out of the race. I was surprised by that, somewhat, but it looked like Lynch just couldn’t get the money he needed.

What has been the tone of the primary on the Republican side

So far it’s been pretty civil. Neither of these guys has raised all that much money; Moffitt especially has a hard time raising money, so I don’t know that he’s going to be a serious candidate. I don’t know that he will have the money to get on TV.

The 1st congressional district contest has made the news this year, as it does, because of the Kennedy connection. Were you surprised when Patrick Kennedy decided to retire and not run for the seat again?

No, after his dad died he was just sick of it. This is all he has done since he’s been nineteen years old. It was almost kind of liberating. Once his father was not around anymore, that was it.

He’s had some personal troubles—he’s been to rehab several times and has had some trouble staying with his sobriety. With his dad gone, he’s got more money than he could spend for the rest of his life, and I think he’d like a time-out from politics.

How is he viewed in Rhode Island?

He’s always been fairly popular; he hasn’t lost an election since his first election in 1998. But that popularity had dropped recently. I think there’s a feeling on the part of some of the voters that they were sick of these repeated relapses in his sobriety. First, there was a lot of compassion for him when he admitted he was bipolar and that he was addicted to alcohol and to painkillers. Then there came second trip to rehab and there was the car accident late at night at the capitol. And then there was another stint in rehab last year—he did leave rehab to make an important vote, but he missed a lot of votes during a very crucial time. He was in rehab in Maryland for a month, which meant he wasn’t home and that he missed the Fourth of July parade. In a small state like Rhode Island, where retail politics is still very important, people cared that he wasn’t coming home so much and that he was getting in trouble. There were reports in the Washington press that he’d been out at some taverns in D.C. and got himself into more hot water. After that, people say, ‘Wait a minute, can you do the job or not?’ I think he could have won again but it would have been a brutal race.

Did anti-incumbency play into his drop in popularity at all?

He’s a long-term incumbent, which probably plays into this, yes. Here’s a guy who’s been there since 1994 and he’s a big part of the Democratic leadership. But don’t forget this is a district that Obama won with sixty-six percent. So it’s a fairly reliable blue Democratic district.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.