Sheldon Whitehouse was swept into office in the Democratic "wave" year of 2006, defeating center-left Republican Lincoln Chafee (now Rhode Island's governor). However, an anti-incumbent sentiment seems to be growing in that state. RI-01 incumbent David Cicilline (D) is in real danger of losing his seat, either to a primary challenge by a fellow Democrat or to his Republican challenger. RI-01 seems one of the seats in New England most likely to flip.
Meanwhile, Whitehouse may yet be vulnerable to his Republican challenger, Barry Hinckley. A poll taken at the end of February (the latest poll I could find) showed Whitehouse getting 50% to 28% for Hinckley. The size of that margin should not obscure the fact that a sitting senator was barely able to crack 50% against a relative political unknown. Whitehouse's approval rating in that poll would be fairly grim for any incumbent: 38% approval with 53% disapproval. Clearly, Rhode Island voters are not entirely happy with the Democratic incumbent.
Whitehouse looks to use a spending advantage to offset the state mood. According to public campaign finance records, he has currently raised about $4.2 million, about four times the amount that Hinckley has raised (which is about $1 million). However, much of this money comes from interest groups and large donors. Nearly 30% of Whitehouse's contributions (about $1.2 million) come from PACs. These PACs include leadership PACs set up by fellow Democrat office-holders, union-financed PACs, business-sector PACs, and ideological PACs. Whitehouse has raked in millions in big-donor contributions (contributions over $200).
Where Whitehouse has lagged, however, is in small donors. Currently, he has only raised about $168,000 in small donations from individual donors, so about 4% of his fundraising has come from small donors. Whitehouse seems to be trying to make the most of the advantages of incumbency, collecting sums from big-ticket donors and interest groups. But he hasn't exactly caught fire with the grassroots.
According to a Hinckley spokesman, about 60% of the Hinckley campaign's donations come from small donors. Campaign finance records suggest that about 1% of Hinckley's total haul comes from PACs.
In 2006, Lincoln Chafee drew heavily from PAC money and other vested interests, while then-challenger Whitehouse took only about 11% of his funds from PACs. Now that Whitehouse occupies a Senate seat, he's the one trying to insulate himself with PAC money.
For his part, Cicilline is also drawing on big money to try to make it through a rough election. Nearly 25% of his fundraising comes from PACs, and only 7% comes from small donors.
Rhode Island Democrats seem to hope that they can paper over electoral dark clouds with ample helpings of green.