GOP’s Nardolillo kicks off campaign to unseat Sen. Whitehouse

Coventry rep may face primary against former high-court judge Robert Flanders

COVENTRY, R.I. (WPRI) – State Rep. Bobby Nardolilllo kicked off his campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse on Monday evening, arguing the incumbent is too much a voice of opposition in Washington and isn’t focused on Rhode Island voters’ priorities.

Nardolillo, a 37-year-old Coventry Republican who works at his family’s funeral home, formally launched his Senate bid at an event at the VFW Post in Coventry. He has served in the R.I. House of Representatives since 2015, known for his vocal opposition to illegal immigration and Syrian refugee resettlement, as well as his sharp suits and signature bow-ties.

“I am not a person of empty words, and Rhode Island demands action,” Nardolillo told a crowd of more than 100 people, including a number of his fellow Republican elected leaders. “But instead our junior senator has been a critic. And that’s easy to do – any mule can kick.”

Nardolillo gave few policy details in his brief speech. On Whitehouse’s signature issue – climate change – Nardolillo described himself as not “a climate denier” but “a climate realist,” arguing the senator spends too much time on the topic. He also bemoaned the regulatory burden on the local fishing industry, with “Make Commercial Fishing Great Again” signs hung around the room. He emphasized national security and offered warm words for veterans, as well.

“He has been more passive in terms of national security,” Nardolillo said of Whitehouse. “I have a firmer position with supporting our military and securing our borders. Things of that nature are important, and he hasn’t necessarily taken a firm position on that yet. A passive position doesn’t build strength and security.”

As an example, Nardolillo pointed to Whitehouse’s January 2016 vote to oppose the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, a Republican-sponsored bill that supporters said would beef up background checks for refugees from Syria and Iraq. Nardolillo said he would have voted for the legislation.

A crowd listens to Nardolillo’s speech. (credit: Ted Nesi/WPRI)

Whitehouse, a Democrat, is seeking a third six-year Senate term in 2018. He has stockpiled nearly $2 million and hired a campaign staffer, Joseph Caiazzo, to start laying the groundwork for his re-election effort. His spokeswoman declined to comment on Nardolillo’s kickoff.

Nardolillo isn’t the only Republican with an eye on Whitehouse’s seat, however – former R.I. Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert Flanders has also formed an exploratory committee as he considers whether to run.

On Monday, Flanders said his exploratory effort “is in full swing.”

“I’m definitely leaning towards doing it,” Flanders told Eyewitness News. “It’s really a question of trying to raise the money needed and touching base with the people that I need to communicate with, and getting organized.” He said he’s received “a lot of positive feedback” since first expressing interest in running.

Flanders said a formal campaign announcement from him is not “imminent,” noting, “It’s still May, and the election is in November of 2018 – there’s no need in my opinion to rush an announcement.”

Nardolillo said he respects Flanders and won’t shy away from a primary. “If he decides that his interest is to be in the race, I always felt very strongly about leaving it up to the people – so a primary leaves it up to the people,” he said, adding: “I don’t have a bad word to say about him. He’s a gentleman.”

Either Nardolillo or Flanders would be an underdog against Whitehouse: no Republican has won a congressional race in Rhode Island since Lincoln Chafee in 2000. And the last time a Republican who wasn’t a member of the Chafee family won a Rhode Island U.S. Senate race was 1930.

“It’s going to be very tough,” Eyewitness News political analyst Joe Fleming said. “It’s going to take a great deal of money.” Nardolillo estimated he will need between $500,000 and $600,000 to run a competitive race.

President Trump’s standing in Rhode Island is likely to have a major effect on the race, Fleming said, noting Whitehouse has been a vocal voice of opposition to the Republican president, who lost the state by double-digits in November. He also said a GOP primary poses risks for the party if it pushes the candidates too far to the right or soaks up their campaign money, though he also noted it could boost their name recognition.

Nardolillo gave Trump a letter grade of “A-” for the job he’s done during his first four months as president and said, “I would continually support him on his mission.” But, he added, “I think maybe he has to listen more. I think listening is a very important thing. We’re given two ears for a reason, one mouth for a reason – means we should be listening double the time.”

R.I. Democratic Party Chairman Joe McNamara, another state representative, quickly issued a statement calling Nardolillo “an unabashed supporter” of Trump. “If you want an advocate for Donald Trump instead of the hard-working families of Rhode Island, then Nardolillo is your choice,” he said.

Among those on hand for Nardolillo’s kickoff was Jennifer Gould, a Republican voter from Coventry, who said she met him last year when he reached out proactively to help with her GoFundMe campaign to purchase a statute in tribute to a beloved town police dog.

“He’s humble,” Gould said of Nardolillo. “He’s a humble, God-fearing man. I’m so honored to be his friend.”

Nardolillo and his wife, Jacqueline, have two children, Rocco and Milania. He was educated at LaSalle Military Academy on Long Island and Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, according to his legislative biography.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook