PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Dan McKee never wins easily. But in the end, he always wins.
Four years ago, when McKee was seeking re-election as lieutenant governor, he faced an aggressive primary challenge from progressive state Rep. Aaron Regunberg. In the end McKee won in a nail-biter, defeating Regunberg by roughly 2,000 votes — and positioning him to become the new governor when Gina Raimondo resigned to go to Washington.
As the results of this year’s gubernatorial primary rolled in Tuesday night, it briefly looked as if McKee’s luck might have run out. Former CVS executive Helena Foulkes took a small lead in the initial results, confirming she had received a burst of late momentum following her well-received performance in last week’s WPRI 12 debate.
But McKee clawed back ground as the night wore on, and he moved firmly into first place when mail ballots were added to the totals. As of early Wednesday morning, McKee led Foulkes by a comfortable margin of about 3,000 votes, ahead 32.8% to 30.1% in a relatively low-turnout primary.
The final results made clear that Foulkes’ closing momentum — much debated among Rhode Island’s political cognoscenti over the last week — was real. Foulkes narrowly edged McKee among voters who cast their ballots in person Tuesday, 26,509 to 26,266.
But the rapid shift toward Foulkes came too late to secure her the nomination: she placed third among voters who cast their ballots early in person or by mail, trailing not only McKee but also Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea. That will add fuel to the debate over whether Foulkes’ team was too passive for too long. (Among the questions they’ll face: why wasn’t Foulkes calling for debates in May or June?)
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Longtime 12 News political analyst and pollster Joe Fleming highlighted three key factors that he thinks laid the groundwork for McKee’s victory Tuesday night. The first two factors: his strong support from many labor unions, and his strong support from many mayors, who have been his allies since his days leading Cumberland.
“They know how to get out the vote,” Fleming said.
The third factor: Willa McKee, the governor’s nonagenarian mother, whose star turn in his opening TV ad was the biggest hit of the campaign. (“Not bad for a govahnah who lives with his motha,” Mrs. McKee said, her accent as quintessentially Rhode Island as a frozen Del’s.) The spot warmed up McKee’s public image — he heard about it constantly on the campaign trail — and shifted attention away from less helpful issues like the FBI investigation into the ILO contract.
Another factor, of course, was the collapse of Gorbea’s campaign.
The secretary of state’s final showing was respectable: 26% of the vote, about in line with her share in the last WPRI 12/Roger Williams University poll a little over a month ago. But she ran far behind Foulkes and McKee among voters who cast their ballots Tuesday, offering evidence that the air had gone out of the balloon when it came to her candidacy.
The writing may have been on the wall for Gorbea over a year ago, when her team was unable to even announce her candidacy smoothly, accidentally posting her launch video too soon. She faced a series of setbacks in recent weeks, with headline-grabbing mistakes in her TV ads and an unsuccessful effort to avoid blame for electronic-ballot problems that she insisted were entirely the fault of the Board of Elections.
Still, Gorbea didn’t implode quite fast enough for Foulkes to fully capitalize on her struggles, allowing McKee to defeat them both — even though he failed to win over two-thirds of Democratic primary voters.
The final result was eerily similar to the conclusion of Rhode Island’s 2010 general election, which saw Lincoln Chafee hold on by staying a few points ahead of a late-surging candidate (John Robitaille) who in turn benefited from the rapid decline of another top contender (Frank Caprio).
Now McKee heads into the general election against Republican Ashley Kalus, who had no trouble dispatching little-known primary rival Jonathan Riccitelli in Tuesday’s GOP primary.
Kalus is a bit of a riddle. She is not just a newcomer to Rhode Island politics, she is a newcomer to Rhode Island, only having registered to vote in the state last winter. Yet she is also deadly serious about her candidacy — she’s poured $2.7 million into her campaign so far, and she was the first candidate on the air this year. Money is no object for her.
The Democratic Governors Association is taking Kalus seriously, debuting a TV attack ad on Tuesday that weaponizes the GOP candidate’s comments about abortion rights in a 12 News at 4 interview earlier this year. The DGA’s early support will be a relief to McKee, who ends the primary with little cash on hand (but state matching funds on the way).
Gov. Roy Cooper, chair of the Democratic Governors Association, said Tuesday night: “In the year and a half since he was sworn in, Governor McKee has put Rhode Island back on strong footing as the state has recovered from the pandemic, including reaching one of the highest vaccination rates in the country.”
Govs. Doug Ducey and Pete Ricketts, co-chairs of the Republican Governors Association, offered a different view: “The least popular governor in America, Dan McKee has spent his tenure as governor embroiled in scandal and unabashedly supporting Washington Democrats’ agenda that resulted in the cost of living skyrocketing in Rhode Island.”
McKee’s allies aren’t taking the general election for granted, but they are also confident the state’s Democratic lean combined with Kalus’s lack of longstanding ties to Rhode Island will allow McKee to secure a full four-year term in his own right. But the Kalus team points to McKee’s low poll numbers to make the case that she has a shot.
In eight weeks, we’ll know who was right.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.