5 key takeaways from the RI primary election

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island voters opted for a rematch when they went to the polls Wednesday, sending Democratic incumbent Gina Raimondo and Republican Allan Fung back into the ring to wage a second fight for the governor’s office this fall.

After a notably late primary, the Nov. 6 general election is now less than eight weeks away; Raimondo and Fung face a sprint through September and October that’s sure to see the state blanketed in TV ads. Eyewitness News political analyst Joe Fleming said he expects the race to get “nasty,” and fast.

They won’t be the only ones vying for voters’ affections: conservative independent Joe Trillo is also on the ballot in November, as are four other independent or third-party candidates, raising the possibility of another gubernatorial contest won with less than 50% of the vote.

Here are five key takeaways from Rhode Island’s primary. (Click here for the full results.)

Raimondo, Fung come out with a head of steam

During the primary’s final stretch, Democratic challenger Matt Brown insisted he had obtained leaked internal polling from Gina Raimondo’s campaign showing the pair in “a statistical tie.” That helped fuel widespread speculation Raimondo could be headed for a narrow victory on Wednesday, or even a shock defeat.

The results were very different: Raimondo took 57% of the vote and won all but four of Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns, while Brown received only 34%. That marks a political milestone for Raimondo, who barely cracked 40% in the primary and general elections four years ago. Her campaign heads into the fall contest with momentum it would not have had if she’d squeaked out another narrow win.

Republican Allan Fung was widely expected to prevail – his own campaign released a poll in July showing him up 40 points – though House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan forced him to earn it. Fung wound up taking nearly as much of the vote as Raimondo, getting 56% to Morgan’s 40%, and winning 28 communities. He also demonstrated his continued dominance in Cranston, crushing Morgan there by nearly 3,000 votes.

A fall referendum on Raimondo – or Trump?

The victory speeches from Raimondo and Fung immediately made clear the terrain they hope to fight on this fall.

Raimondo wasted little time in tying her opponent to President Trump, arguing that Fung failed to stand up to the White House’s effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Fung showed he wants to keep the race locally focused, assailing Raimondo over problems such as UHIP and the recent I-195 bridge backup, while downplaying his support for Trump.

The rationales for both approaches are obvious. Trump lost Rhode Island by double-digits and has a weak approval rating in the state, and Democrats elsewhere have found even some voters open to Trump are wary of his health care proposals. But Raimondo’s job rating isn’t much higher than Trump’s, so Fung wants Rhode Islanders mindful of her administration’s missteps, not national politics.

The contest will get expensive. Raimondo has already spent millions of dollars on her campaign, and her TV ad blitz isn’t letting up. Fung is expecting an infusion of more than $1 million from the state’s public matching-funds program, and should be back on the broadcast airwaves soon, too. (He’s already airing spots on cable.)

Then there are outside groups. The Democratic Governors Association recently transferred $1 million to the state to bolster Raimondo, who will be a priority for the group as its vice-chair. The Republican Governors Association sent $300,000 to Rhode Island on Wednesday and an affiliated group has reserved $1.5 million in TV time.

That said, both the DGA and the RGA have other races to worry about nationwide, so their leaders will be keeping a close eye on how competitive the Rhode Island contest is as they weigh what to invest here.

It was a good night for incumbents

Primary voters were not in a “throw the bums out” kind of mood on Wednesday.

In the governor’s race, voters handed their parties’ nominations to the same pair they chose in 2014, Gina Raimondo and Allan Fung. In the lieutenant governor’s race, incumbent Democrat Dan McKee squeaked out a win after an aggressive challenge from state Rep. Aaron Regunberg. In the races for Congress, incumbent Democrats Sheldon Whitehouse and David Cicilline both took three-fourths of the vote over obscure opponents.

It continued down the ballot. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza took nearly every one of the capital city’s 79 precincts. Warwick’s acting mayor, Joe Solomon, coasted to the nomination for a first full term.  Nearly every member of the General Assembly who sought re-election was renominated.

There were exceptions. Cumberland Mayor Bill Murray lost his Democratic primary to challenger Jeff Mutter. Three incumbent lawmakers – two senators, Paul Jabour and Jeanine Calkin, and one representative, Ramon Perez – lost their seats, too.

But there was little evidence of a broader desire to toss the people currently in office.

Bright spot for progressives: General Assembly races

It was a disappointing night for Rhode Island progressives at the top of the ticket. Matt Brown fell far short in his challenge to Gina Raimondo, though that was partly because some progressive groups stood by her. A bigger blow was state Rep. Aaron Regunberg coming up just short in his challenge to incumbent Lt. Gov Dan McKee, despite the nearly united backing of progressive groups and many unions.

There was a clear bright spot for those on the left, however: the General Assembly.

In the year’s most high-profile legislative primary, Providence Rep. Moira Walsh saw off a full-bore effort by Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello to unseat her in favor of Michael Earnheart, a Trump supporter who was even briefly endorsed by the Mattiello-controlled state party. Mattiello’s chief of staff, Leo Skenyon, was among those spotted with Earnheart at the polls Wednesday. (Walsh tweeted Wednesday night, “Huge shout out to @RISpeaker, for pushing me to strive harder, push farther, and hold grudges.”)

Walsh was not alone. Providence Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell held onto her seat despite losing the endorsement of her local district committee, still controlled by allies of Mattiello’s former No. 2, John DeSimone, who she unseated two years ago. Other progressive victories included Mario Mendez in Providence’s District 13, Liana Cassar in Barrington’s District 66 and Laufton Ascencao won in Bristol’s District 68.

(One positive for Mattiello on an otherwise gloomy night: Providence Rep. Dan McKiernan, a Mattiello ally, saw off progressive challenger Belen Florez.)

In the Senate, progressives lost first-term Warwick incumbent Jeanine Calkin, who was also the only sitting lawmaker to endorse Brown over Raimondo. But they won a significant victory in Providence, where Sam Bell, one of the state’s most prominent liberal activists, defeated longtime incumbent Paul Jabour.

Also of note: a majority of the Providence City Council is expected to be women for the first time come January.

Rhode Islanders were enthusiastic about voting

With clear frontrunners in the gubernatorial race and no other major contested contests beyond lieutenant governor, many observers thought voter turnout would be light on Wednesday – especially as heavy rain poured for much of the day.

But many other states have seen primary turnout top expectations this year as political passions run high, and in the end Rhode Island voters showed up in strong numbers. About 117,000 votes were cast in the Democratic primary for governor, compared with 126,000 in the hard-fought Raimondo-Taveras-Pell race four years ago. And nearly 33,000 votes were cast in the GOP primary, which was actually a slight increase from four years ago.

Of course, even with those numbers only about one in five Rhode Island voters showed up to cast a ballot on Wednesday. Plus, the primary doesn’t necessarily predict what will happen in November: just 44% of Rhode Island voters cast a ballot in the 2014 general election, an unusually low turnout, despite the high level of interest in the primary.

Campaigns will be watching closely to see how tuned-in people are as Nov. 6 approaches.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

This article has been revised and updated. An earlier version also misdescribed Senate primary winner Sam Bell; he is a prominent progressive activist. It also said Matt Brown won three cities and towns; he won four (Burrillville, Gloceseter, Scituate and West Greenwich).

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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