Scott MacKay Commentary: The RI Primaries

Sep 7, 2018

Rhode Island voters head to polls in primary elections Wednesday. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay has been thinking about what’s at stake as candidates jockey for positions in the November midterm elections.

Wednesday’s primary elections will make or break candidates from the Statehouse to town halls and decide the direction of state’s Republican and Democratic parties for the next two years.

For both parties, the top contest is the governorship, where the establishment candidates—Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo and Republican Cranston Mayor Allan Fung—are the favorites.

Raimondo, Rhode Island’s first woman governor, has benefitted from low unemployment and a growing economy. Yet she has faced challenges, including low job approval ratings, the failure of a state digital system dealing with food stamp and nursing home benefits and the loss of the Pawtucket Red Sox baseball team to Massachusetts. And she has governed as a centrist at a time when insurgent liberals have gained traction in primaries nationally this year.

Raimondo has refused to debate her two challengers, Matt Brown, a former secretary of state, and Spencer Dickinson, a onetime state representative from South Kingstown. Brown is running to Raimondo’s left, pushing such issues as single-payer health care and renewable energy. He is hoping to harness the progressive energy that fueled Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential primary victory over Hillary Clinton in the state.

While Raimondo has spent about $4 million, much of it on television commercials, Brown has had difficulty raising money and putting together an organization. He has relied on a grass-roots effort, collaborating with environmental and liberal groups. In a primary where organized labor has historically been influential, Brown hasn’t attracted much union support while Raimondo has endorsements from the building trades and service employees.

On the Republican side, Fung has his party’s endorsement and faces competition from two Republicans, House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan and Giovanni Feroce, a former state senator with a business background.  Fung, too, has sought to limit debates; he agreed to just one on a small Woonsocket radio station in mid-afternoon. The Cranston mayor has also limited interactions with reporters, brushing away questions on such prickly topics as abortion and the Trump presidency.

The other campaign that has drawn statewide interest is lieutenant governor on the Democratic side, where State Rep. Aaron Regunberg, a Providence liberal known for his advocacy of paid family leave, abortion rights and gun control, is challenging incumbent Dan McKee. Unlike Brown, Regunberg has raised money, run television spots and attracted labor support.

A major unknown is turnout. In 2014, almost 130,000 Democratic voters cast ballots in the three-way race won by Raimondo. Fung won the primary comfortably in a turnout of about 32,000.

On Wednesday, there are few of the urban mayoral primaries that generate votes in Rhode Island. Four years ago there was a spirited Providence mayoral primary. Now, Mayor Jorge Elorza is expected to cruise to renomination over two underfinanced challengers in the capital city.

The modern turnout record of about 170,000 for a Democratic governor primary occurred in 1990, when outsider Bruce Sundlun won a three-way election over the mayors of Warwick and Providence. The highest GOP participation, about 45,000, came in 1994 when U.S. Attorney Lincoln Almond defeated Then-Congressman Ron Machtley, now president of Bryant University.

On this week’s ballot is a slate of progressive General Assembly candidates challenging Democratic establishment candidates. These progressives are  driven by liberal stances on labor, environmental and abortion rights issues. A factor in the statewide campaigns is where these progressive voters go in the governor and lieutenant governor elections.

No Rhode Island governor has lost a renomination primary since 1994, when incumbent Sundlun fell to State Sen. Myrth York.

While Raimondo’s campaign predicts a strong turnout, pollster Joe Fleming of WPRI television isn’t so sure. He says the lack of urban mayoral campaigns and the view that the favorites will win may keep Democratic turnout  under 100,000 and Republican participation at 25,000 or so. Because activists usually vote, Raimondo’s camp says it is pushing turnout to ensure that she has a solid double-digit margin. Fung’s ability to churn out Cranston voters is a hurdle for his opponents in a small voter pool.

As the Bible says, the race isn’t always to the swift and strong. But that’s the way to bet.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday morning at 6:45 and 8:45 and at 5:44 in the afternoon. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our “On Politics” blog at RIPR.org