PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Democratic Gov. Dan McKee is heading into the final month of the campaign with a healthy lead over his Republican challenger Ashley Kalus, an exclusive 12 News/Roger Williams University poll released Thursday shows.
The survey of 402 likely voters in Rhode Island finds McKee at 45% and Kalus at 32%, while 15% of those surveyed are still undecided. None of the three independent candidates on the ballot — Elijah Gizzarelli, Zachary Hurwitz and Paul Rianna — top 3%.
12 News political analyst and pollster Joe Fleming said that with five candidates splitting up the vote for governor, the governor’s current 45% support “could be a winning number if Dan McKee can hold onto that.”
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Still, with more than four weeks left, Fleming said Kalus still has an opportunity to close the gap with McKee. He cited what happened in last month’s Democratic primary, when Helena Foulkes made rapid gains in the final days of the race and came close to defeating McKee even though she had been down by double-digits a month earlier.
“Six months ago, no one knew who Kalus was — she started at zero,” Fleming said. “Most of the time when someone runs for governor they have a base of support; she did not have that. She’s moved up.”
The cellphone and landline interview poll was conducted Sept. 29 through Oct. 2 by Fleming & Associates of Cumberland, R.I. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus approximately 4.9 percentage points. Fleming has been conducting polls for WPRI 12 since 1984.
McKee survived a tough Democratic primary last month, winning with 33% against Foulkes and Nellie Gorbea — the smallest share of the vote for a primary winner in Rhode Island history. That spurred hope among some Republicans that the incumbent would enter the general election in a weaker position against Kalus.
Kalus has her own vulnerabilities, notably the fact that she never lived in Rhode Island before moving to the state last year when she won a state COVID-19 testing contract. But she has poured $2.7 million of her own money into her campaign and was the first candidate on TV this year.
The poll shows Kalus has made some gains, but not enough to offset McKee’s advantages as both a Democrat and an incumbent. She is leading McKee among independents, 42% to 29%, but has only secured the support of 66% of Republicans, whereas McKee is backed by 72% of Democrats.
Fleming said Kalus needs to bring her support among independent voters to “well over 50%” if she wants to defeat McKee. “That is where she has to really make inroads,” he said, noting 19% of independents are still undecided in the race. “That is going to be key for her.”
In addition to his strong support from Democrats, McKee is also performing well with female voters and younger voters. Kalus is closer, but still trailing, with middle-aged voters and men.
“There are a lot of things that could happen in over a month from now, but so far if I’m Dan McKee, I would rather be in his position than somebody else’s,” Fleming said.
Kalus “has a lot of work to do, but again, there is just over a month before the election,” Fleming said. “There is still plenty of time to do that. The question is, what is she going to do over the next month to convince the voters to come over to her and not vote Democratic?”
Some still forming opinions on top candidates
McKee took office as Rhode Island’s governor in March 2021, succeeding Gina Raimondo after she resigned to join President Biden’s cabinet. Even after a year and a half in the top job, though, a sizable bloc of voters still don’t have an opinion about the incumbent.
The 12 News/RWU poll shows 45% of Rhode Island voters have a favorable view of McKee, while 36% view him unfavorably and 19% aren’t sure what they think about him. There is a major gender gap in perceptions of the governor, with women viewing him more favorably than unfavorably (49% to 32%) but men split at 40% each way.
McKee is viewed favorably by 55% of Democrats and 42% of independent voters, and is in positive territory with all age groups. But Fleming noted that among voters with strong opinions about McKee, only 13% say their view of him is “very favorable,” while 22% say their view is “very unfavorable.”
Even fewer voters have an opinion about the Republican nominee, and opinions are about evenly split among those who do.
The poll shows 33% of voters have a favorable view of Kalus, 32% have an unfavorable view of her, and 35% have no opinion about the political newcomer. Men view her positively by a 38% to 26% margin, but women view her negatively by a 37% to 30% margin.
Independent voters are a relative strong point for Kalus, with 37% viewing her favorably against 29% who view her unfavorably. But she is now viewed unfavorably by 42% of Democrats and favorably by only 20%. Among the survey’s small sample of Republicans, 60% view Kalus favorably but 27% still have no opinion about her.
Fleming said both candidates’ images are likely being affected by the large number of TV attack ads currently airing on both sides of the governor’s race.
“Thats going to bump the unfavorable numbers up,” he said.
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Cost of living is voters’ top concern
When it comes to the state’s direction, only a minority of voters are feeling good. The poll shows 45% think Rhode Island is moving in the wrong direction, while only 34% think the state is moving in the right direction, 9% think the situation has remained the same, and 12% aren’t sure.
Fleming pointed out that among independent voters, only 23% think the state is moving in the right direction. “You may be able to hop on that if you’re trailing in the polls,” he said.
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Asked to name the single biggest issue in this year’s election, voters’ most common answer by far was the cost of living, cited by 42% of survey respondents. That was followed by abortion — cited by 14% of all voters, but 21% of Democrats — then education (11%), health care (10%), taxes (9%) and public safety (7%).
Fleming said he wasn’t surprised that inflation topped voters’ list of concerns.
“They see it every day at the grocery store right now,” he said. “When they go out shopping, they go out to eat, the prices have all skyrocketed, so the cost of living is really affecting people right now.”
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More poll results coming up tonight on 12 News at 10 and 11: find out if Rhode Island voters support or oppose the proposed soccer stadium in Pawtucket.
Ted Nesi (email@example.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