Eight Questions About Rhode Island's Primary Election

Sep 11, 2018

Gov. Raimondo and Mayor Fung squared off in 2014. This time around, the choices open to voters also include Democrats Matt Brown and Spencer Dickinson, and Republicans Patricia Morgan and Giovanni Feroce.
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

Rhode Island's 2018 primary is almost here. Some voters have tuned in recently, and many not at all. Political junkies, on the other hand, have been anticipating this election for a long time.

So here are some key questions that will be answered by voters (and here's a link to the secretary of state's Voter Information Center, if you need any of the info there):

1. The overarching question of the primary election is whether there's a surprise outcome or a series of them. Does Matt Brown get past fellow Democrat Gina Raimondo, and/or does Republican Patricia Morgan upset 2014 GOP candidate Allan Fung? The conventional wisdom favors Raimondo and Fung (and perhaps also Lt. Gov. Dan McKee, who faces a progressive Democratic primary challenge from Aaron Regunberg). But there's an unsettled quality to the American electorate, and outcomes elsewhere show how the standard rules of politics don't always apply these days.

2. If Raimondo defeats Brown by a margin of single digits, critics will seize on that as evidence of a still-vulnerable candidate. That may be reasonable, given the governor's overwhelming cash advantage over Brown and other benefits of incumbency. (Of course, a similar narrative could play out if Fung defeats Morgan by a closer-than-expected margin.) But the general election will be a different race, with a broader field of candidates, led by independent Joe Trillo. His eventual ceiling could have an outsized impact on the general election in November.

3. There are primary races for 33 of the 113 seats in the General Assembly. One key question is whether women and progressives gain ground in their effort to boost legislative representation. Key Democratic races to watch include Michael Earnheart's challenge to Rep. Moira Walsh; Laufton Ascencao and Andrew Tyska squaring off the seat being vacated by Rep. Ken Marshall (D-Bristol); and the scrap between Democrats Kevin Heitke and Paul Roselli for the seat being vacated by Sen. Paul Fogarty (D-Glocester.) The 33 primaries include 3 GOP contests, including one for the Fogarty seat.

4. Will the PawSox register as an issue in the primary election? House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello will not be on the ballot this time around. But it will be interesting to see how the gubernatorial vote breaks in Pawtucket. Back in 2014, Gov. Raimondo got 38.4 percent of the primary vote there, compared with 34.6 for Angel Taveras and 24.8 percent for Clay Pell. Raimondo cleaned up in Pawtucket in the general that year with 7,144 votes (51.8 percent), compared with 3,391 (24.6 percent) for Allan Fung and 2.960 (21.5 percent) for the late Robert Healey.

5. How many voters will participate in the primary election? That's anyone's guess. Slightly more than 128,000 voters cast ballots in the 2014 Democratic primary with Raimondo and two rivals with strong name recognition, Taveras and Pell, along with Todd Giroux. It's easy to suspect the number might be lower this time around, given what most observers see as a lack of enthusiasm around the election, but we'll have to wait and see. Also disputed among campaign-watchers is which candidates would most benefit or suffer from a high-turnout/low-turnout scenario.

6. Will Bernie Sanders' win over Hillary Clinton in Rhode Island's March 2016 presidential campaign offer clues for progressive votes across the state this time around? For the record, Sanders had some of his greatest support in South Kingstown (61.6 percent), Coventry (60.9 percent), North Kingstown (59.1 percent), Warwick (58.4 percent), and Newport (56.2 percent). Across the aisle, President Donald Trump attracted some of his greatest support in Johnston (77.7 percent), Woonsocket (74.4 percent), West Warwick (72.7 percent), Cranston (72.0), and Coventry (71.5 percent).

7. Money isn't everything in campaigns, but it usually still counts for a lot. Gina Raimondo has outspent Matt Brown by a factor of about 20. Rivals like Allan Fung have already tried turning the governor's fundraising prowess into a liability. But Raimondo's fundraising firepower has also been an important factor in her campaign wins for treasurer and governor. Will that hold true this time around?

8. What's next? If Fung and Raimondo win, their campaigns will point to the respective need, come November, for change or continuity. If Morgan and Brown win, it will set the stage for a general election clash of conservative and progressive messages. Regardless, the primary results will propel some candidates forward while leaving others to wonder what might have been.