5 things you need to know about today’s RI statewide primary

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island voters are heading to the polls Wednesday to cast ballots in a statewide primary, one of the very last to be held in the nation.

The most closely watched races are the Democratic and Republican primaries for governor, though the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor is also a key race. The nominations for dozens of legislative districts are also up for grabs, with some incumbents at risk of losing their seats.

WPRI.com Voter Guide »

If you need information on when and where to cast your ballot, visit vote.ri.gov. And to get you up to speed on the races before polls close at 8 p.m., here’s a quick cheat sheet.

Eyewitness News will have updates and analysis throughout the day on air and on WPRI.com, with full results once they start coming in soon after 8 – including a one-hour primary special at 9 on WPRI 12, followed by the late news at 10 and 11.

As always, voter turnout is a wild card

It’s not exactly a brilliant insight to say the winners of today’s contests will be determined by who shows up to vote. But turnout is what’s on the minds of all the campaigns, partly because they fear the unexpected. The number of ballots cast in Rhode Island primaries for governor has varied widely over recent years: on the Democratic side, it’s ranged from 92,000 (2006) to 128,000 (2014); for the Republicans, it’s usually been 21,000 (2010) to 32,000 (2014). This year’s relatively quiet primary, with few marquee races and no televised debates for governor, has some thinking turnout could be on the low side. Then again, turnout has been beating forecasts nationwide this year as political passions run high. (See Delaware just last week, for example.) The more extreme turnout is – whether below or above expectations – the more likely we see a surprise result.

Democrats: Brown’s challenge tests Raimondo

Rhode Island has only elected two Democrats as governor in the last three decades: Bruce Sundlun and Gina Raimondo. (Lincoln Chafee won as an independent.) During Sundlun’s first re-election campaign in 1992, he was forced into a tough primary against former Warwick Mayor Frank Flaherty and just squeaked by. This time Raimondo is the Democrat seeking re-election, and she’s wound up in a surprisingly competitive primary against former Secretary of State Matt Brown, challenging her from the left. Brown has been massively outspent – Raimondo has dropped $1.7 million on TV ads over the last three months – but in this era of political surprises and progressive energy, the governor’s advisers have taken him seriously. A third Democrat, former Rep. Spencer Dickinson, could affect the outcome depending on how many votes he receives. An upset victory for Brown would be seismic, whereas a win for Raimondo would continue the campaign on its expected path. But how she wins matters, too – a close race could raise questions about her standing heading into November. Then again, a tight primary isn’t necessarily predictive: after fending off Flaherty in 1992, Sundlun went on to defeat GOP nominee Elizabeth Leonard by 28 points.

Republicans: Morgan seeks an upset over Fung

The Republican gubernatorial primary is in some ways eerily similar to the Democratic one. In both parties, the 2014 nominee is facing an energetic challenge from a new candidate, and has taken heat for refusing to do televised debates. In this case, the two candidates are Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan. As with the Democrats, there is also a third candidate – businessman Giovanni Feroce – who could affect the outcome if he pulls enough votes. The difference: the GOP outcome will be decided by far fewer people, with Republicans representing just 12% of registered voters. (Independents can vote in the primary, too – though some conservative groups have been encouraging them to vote against progressives in the Democratic primary.) Morgan, like Brown, is a credible candidate but an underdog against Fung, who has more money and a strong geographic base in Cranston. The test for Fung is similar to the test for Raimondo – not just whether he wins, but how much he wins by.

The general election starts tonight

For a blissful few minutes after polls close, Rhode Island politics will be in suspended animation as everyone awaits results. By 10 p.m., though, the general election should be underway. (That said, never rule out a recount.) The first thing to watch: how do the primary winners characterize the fall contest in their victory speeches? The policies and themes they highlight will signal what their campaigns plan to focus on in the coming weeks. Another question: how soon will negative ads go on the air? (Raimondo has already bought TV time for next week in anticipation of a primary victory.) Outside groups will also become a bigger force, with the Democratic Governors Association and Republican Governors Association both saying they’re ready to spend more than $1 million each in the fall. And if either winning campaign is disappointed in how the primary went, look for staff changes – if not firings, then new additions.

Another battle in the Democratic civil war

One of the biggest overarching stories in Rhode Island politics in recent years has been the escalating civil war between the establishment and insurgent factions of the Rhode Island Democratic Party. And tonight’s primary offers a test for the two camps. Progressives have a lot on the line. While Matt Brown stole some of the attention from him, state Rep. Aaron Regunberg’s progressive campaign for lieutenant governor has brought together many unions and interest groups, as he seeks to oust incumbent Dan McKee. The race has been relatively expensive, surprising those who think of the LG’s office as a sleepy backwater; the pair has spent roughly $500,000 combined on TV ads. But that’s not all. There are nearly three dozen contested General Assembly primaries on the ballot and some incumbent progressive lawmakers – such as Warwick Sen. Jeanine Calkin and Providence Reps. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell and Moira Walsh – are facing aggressive challenges from establishment-backed candidates. The success of the progressive candidates up and down the ballot will offer fresh evidence of how strong their movement is among rank-and-file Democrats in Rhode Island.

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

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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