Rhode Island: Eroded Stronghold

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Rhode Island has elected only Democrats to Congress since 1940 and, in proportion to its size, gave John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson the biggest majorities of any state. Yet in a special election last week to fill a vacant seat in the Second Congressional District, the Republicans came within a gnat's eyelash of winning.

Though a recount was under way this week, Democrat Robert Tiernan had apparently held the district for his party. But his plurality at week's end was so slight—410 votes out of 113,500 cast—that defeated Republican James DiPrete Jr. (rhymes with street) and his supporters sounded more jubilant than the winners. And with reason.

Democrat John Fogarty, whose death in January caused the vacancy, had been re-elected last November by a 53,000-vote margin.

The strong G.O.P. showing resulted from a strictly partisan contest. Tiernan, 38, and DiPrete, 39, are similar down to the horn-rimmed glasses they both wear. Both are Roman Catholics, lawyers, fathers of three—and uninspiring campaigners. There was little to distinguish their views on most issues. Neither announced a stand on Viet Nam until an independent "peace" candidate, Unitarian Universalist Minister Albert Perry, forced them into a choice (Perry got 2.7% of the vote). Tiernan came out in full support of the Johnson Administration. DiPrete at first favored a suspension of U.S. bombing of North Viet Nam, then—realizing that he was losing votes thereby—backtracked and declared that he was "flexible" and "certainly opposed to doing anything which would hamper our troops."

The war, as it turned out, had little effect on the outcome. In the end, it was the well-oiled Democratic machine in Providence that saved Tiernan by delivering him a 6,700-vote plurality in the city wards within the district. Even so, in Democratic Rhode Island, it was clear that the nationwide Republican resurgence of last November was as potent as ever.