PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Dan McKee and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea are neck and neck in the Democratic primary for governor, but more voters are undecided than supporting either candidate, an exclusive 12 News/Roger Williams University poll released Tuesday shows.

The survey of 400 likely Rhode Island Democratic primary voters finds McKee at 25% and Gorbea at 23%, but 37% of voters are undecided. McKee’s lead over Gorbea is within the margin of error.

The other three Democratic candidates are still in single-digits: former Secretary of State Matt Brown is at 7%, former CVS executive Helena Foulkes is at 6% and community activist Luis Daniel Muñoz is at 2%.

“There is no question — this race is wide open,” said 12 News political analyst Joe Fleming, who conducted the poll. The primary is Sept. 13.

The cellphone and landline interview poll was conducted Monday, May 9, through Thursday, May 12, by Fleming & Associates of Cumberland, R.I. The survey has an overall margin of sampling error of plus or minus approximately 4.9 percentage points. Fleming has been conducting polls for WPRI 12 since 1984.

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McKee and Gorbea are benefiting from their higher profiles as the only two candidates currently serving in elected office, Fleming said. Foulkes has the most money of the five Democrats but only began running TV campaign ads on Tuesday, after the poll was completed. She is the first candidate in the primary to go on the air.

“These numbers could change greatly between now and September,” Fleming said. “The other candidates in the race do not have high name recognition, which is why they need to get out there and start doing their media, to build their name recognition up, to give the voters an idea of what they stand for.”

The poll finds a sizable gender gap among Democratic primary voters. McKee leads Gorbea by double-digits among male voters, 32% to 17%, while Gorbea leads by double-digits among female voters, 28% to 18%.

Gorbea is well ahead of McKee among voters ages 18 to 39, while McKee leads among voters ages 60 and older. McKee has a slim lead among both self-identified Democrats and self-identified independents, while Gorbea has a slight lead among voters who say they are “very likely” to cast a ballot in the September primary.

The Democratic primary winner will go on to face the Republican nominee. Political newcomer Ashley Kalus, who began a six-figure advertising campaign in April, is viewed as the frontrunner for the GOP nomination.

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Primary voters divided on McKee

McKee took office as Rhode Island’s governor in March 2021, succeeding Gina Raimondo after she resigned to join President Biden’s cabinet. Democratic primary voters are giving a mixed verdict on his leadership of the state over the last 14 months.

The 12 News/RWU poll shows 45% of primary voters say McKee is doing an excellent or good job as governor, while 44% say his performance has been just fair or poor, and 12% don’t know. He is rated positively by 48% of self-identified Democrats, but nearly half of self-identified independents — 49% — rate him negatively.

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“If I’m the governor, these are not the numbers I want to see going into the primary season,” Fleming said, partly attributing the soft support for McKee to controversies such as the FBI investigation into the ILO Group contract and a series of $3,000 bonuses for state employees.

“I would be concerned,” Fleming said.

McKee received his strongest reviews from middle-aged voters, 51% of whom rated the governor’s performance positively in the poll. He was weakest with younger voters, 51% of whom rated him negatively. His job approval was slightly positive with male voters and slightly negative with female voters.

One positive for McKee: just 7% of primary voters rate his job performance as poor, suggesting they may be open to persuasion by his campaign team.

“He can still move these numbers,” Fleming said. “They are stuck in the middle.”

McKee’s job approval is running well behind that of President Biden, a fellow Democrat. The poll finds 60% of Rhode Island Democratic primary voters say Biden is doing an excellent or good job, which is 15 percentage points higher than the governor.

Primary voters ages 60 and older rate Biden positively by a 48-point margin, but he is in slightly negative territory among younger voters. Two-thirds of self-identified Democrats rate Biden positively, but he is rated negatively by 50% of self-identified independent primary voters.

Cost of living top issue; Matos ahead for LG

Like Americans more broadly, Democratic primary voters in Rhode Island say inflation is a top concern at the moment.

The 12 News/RWU poll finds 36% of primary voters describe the cost of living as the single most important issue for them in the race for governor, which was double the share who cited the issue that came in second, health care (18%).

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After cost of living and health care, the top issues cited by smaller groups of primary voters were education (13%) and taxes (12%). Just 5% cited the COVID-19 pandemic and only 3% cited public safety, while 14% either pointed to a different issue or were unsure.

More than 40% of younger voters and independents cited the cost of living as their top issue in the gubernatorial race.

“They’re seeing prices skyrocketing, gasoline skyrocketing, and they’re concerned,” Fleming said. “So they’ll be looking to see what the next governor is going to do to help with the cost of living in the state of Rhode Island.”

A separate question in the poll revealed that 91% of likely Democratic primary voters think the cost of buying or renting a home in Rhode Island is a serious problem.

McKee’s elevation to the governor’s office last year also opened up his former position as Rhode Island’s lieutenant governor. McKee tapped fellow Democrat Sabina Matos, who was then president of the Providence City Council, to replace him in the state’s No. 2 job.

The poll shows the majority of Democratic primary voters aren’t tuned into the race for lieutenant governor yet, with 53% saying they are undecided about who to support.

Among the three announced Democratic candidates, Matos leads with 21%. Behind Matos is state Rep. Deb Ruggiero at 13%, and state Sen. Cynthia Mendes at 12%. (Mendes is campaigning jointly with gubernatorial hopeful Matt Brown.)

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Fleming said the results were no surprise, since the race for lieutenant governor generally garners little attention, especially months before the primary.

“There has not been a lot of activity going on,” he said. “There’s been no paid media from any of these three candidates yet on TV or radio or with direct mail that I’ve seen. They haven’t gotten their message out, and they don’t have really high name recognition right now.”

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Campaigns, GOP react to results

The campaigns and political parties quickly weighed in about the new poll results.

McKee’s campaign manager, Brexton Isaacs, said the governor has “worked tirelessly” to improve Rhode Island’s economy since he took office.

“While he doesn’t put much stock in polls, today’s numbers are a clear sign that Rhode Islanders recognize that Governor McKee is fighting to raise Rhode Islanders’ incomes, support small businesses, and strengthen education,” Isaacs said. “He looks forward to engaging directly with voters over the coming months while continuing to deliver strong, steady leadership for the people of Rhode Island.”

Gorbea’s campaign manager, Dana Walton, said: “This poll shows that this race is a dead heat.”

“Nellie Gorbea is well-positioned to win the Democratic nomination for governor because Democrats know she’s been an effective secretary of state and they like her,” Walton said. “Despite being governor for more than a year, Dan McKee is unpopular and in a far weaker position than a sitting governor should be.” She added that Gorbea is focused on housing, education and climate change.

Foulkes’ spokesperson, Audrey Lucas, found a silver lining despite their campaign only polling at 6%.

“With 37% of respondents undecided, the takeaway from this poll is clear: Democratic primary voters are looking for an alternative to Governor McKee and Secretary Gorbea,” Lucas said. “We’re confident that voters will support Helena once they hear her message and vision for Rhode Island. That’s why we’re so excited to have launched our campaign’s first television ad today.”

In an unsigned statement, Rhode Island Republican Party leaders said, “12 News just released a poll showing what we have known: Rhode Islanders are frustrated with Gov. Dan McKee’s incompetence and insider politics and they are ready to kick him to the curb. Thankfully, Rhode Island has an outsider and a fighter in Ashley Kalus.”

“The days of ‘I know a guy’ will end when we start electing more Republicans up and down the ballot. Working families should not feel the brunt of shady deals and incompetence,” the GOP statement said. “McKee is just not up for the job of governor, and this November, voters will fire him and his cronies.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 managing editor and chief investigative reporter at 12 News, and the host of Newsmakers. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.