PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s candidates for Congress on Thursday kicked off a final sprint before next Tuesday’s primary, touting fresh endorsements and gathering for one final debate as they seek to win over undecided voters.

Former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg, the widely acknowledged frontrunner in the Democratic primary, began the day by announcing an endorsement from perhaps the most famous young progressive lawmaker in the country, New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as he works to consolidate support on the left.

“As a community organizer, climate lawyer, and state legislator – Aaron has been a fierce champion for working people,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a statement. “He helped increase Rhode Island wages for the first time in twenty years and held Big Oil companies accountable for environmental crimes. Now, he’s running for Congress to pass a $15 minimum wage and to fight for a Green New Deal.”

Ocasio-Cortez paired the endorsement announcement with a morning blast to her email fundraising list soliciting contributions to be split between her campaign and Regunberg’s. She warned in her message, “with less than a week left until Rhode Island’s special election, Aaron’s moderate primary challengers are gaining on him.”

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Another leading candidate, former White House official Gabe Amo, countered with a big-name endorsement of his own: former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy, who represented the seat Amo is seeking from 1994 to 2010. Kennedy has cut a new direct-to-camera TV ad making a closing argument for Amo.

“My family has a long tradition of public service, working in government to help people,” Kennedy says in the commercial as images of his famous relatives are shown. “Gabe grew up in Pawtucket and his hard work and passion for public service took him all the way to the White House. He knows how government works – he’s the one who will deliver for Rhode Island. Gabe Amo has the experience that we need now.”

In a fundraising message to supporters touting the Kennedy ad, Amo appeared to characterize the primary as increasingly a two-person race between him and Regunberg.

“My opponent and his super PACs are pulling out all the stops to try to beat us and buy him this seat,” he said. “Help me stand strong, build on today’s momentum, and win this race next Tuesday.”

Regunberg and Amo are among 11 Democrats seeking the 1st Congressional District nomination, with state Sen. Sandra Cano and Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos also widely cited as other candidates with a potential path to victory on Tuesday. (A 12th Democrat, Don Carlson, quit the race Sunday after a Target 12 investigation into his conduct as a college professor.)

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The near-dozen Democrats will be gathering at Rhode Island College for the second time this week on Thursday to tape a pair of debates for WJAR-TV, which plans to break the candidates into two groups and air the two hourlong sessions on Thursday and Friday. Eight of the candidates already debated live on WPRI 12 this past Tuesday night.

Federal Election Commission filings show outside money continues to pour into Rhode Island as third-party groups seek to sway Democratic primary voters.

A new super PAC called the Committee for a Better Rhode Island reported spending $81,000 on a TV attack ad that hammers Regunberg over his position on last spring’s debt-ceiling deal. Regunberg said at the time he would have voted against the agreement, but acknowledged in Tuesday night’s debate that if he’d had to cast the deciding vote he would have flipped his position and supported the deal.

Amo held a news conference Wednesday doubling down on his criticism of Regunberg over the topic, suggesting his opponent’s position was irresponsible. Regunberg has argued that he was taking the same approach as Democrats like U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who voted “no” to protest Republican negotiating tactics.

At the same time, Regunberg is also getting major outside support, with one of his longtime allies — the Working Families Party — spending $100,000 on a positive TV commercial that touts him as “the progressive choice” for 1st District voters.

Off the airwaves, the candidates are spending their days crisscrossing the eastern side of Rhode Island as they seek every vote they can find in what’s expected to be a low-turnout primary. The off-year special election was triggered by the unexpected resignation of David Cicilline last winter to lead the Rhode Island Foundation.

Cano has continued to grow her long list of endorsements from local politicians, adding four current and former Newport elected officials to her slate of supporters on Wednesday: Stephanie Winslow, Kendra Meunter, Aida Neary and Jamie Bova. Her campaign is banking on a strong get-out-the-vote operation by her allies, which include some major labor unions.

The Latino Victory Fund reported spending just over $10,000 on mailers, signs and T-shirts supporting Matos, who began the race as the frontrunner but has been severely damaged by the ongoing criminal investigation into fraudulent signatures on her nomination papers. Matos has benefited from over $800,000 in outside spending over the past month.

The website Jewish Insider also reported that Matos raised $20,000 last weekend at a virtual fundraiser hosted by NORPAC, a pro-Israel group anchored in New York, as she seeks to make Middle East policy a differentiator between her and Regunberg.

Republicans, who are heavily outnumbered in the deep-blue 1st District, also have a choice to make on Tuesday as they decide whether their nominee against the Democratic winner should be Gerry Leonard of Jamestown or Terri Flynn of Middletown. Senate Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz endorsed Leonard on Thursday.

“Gerry, much like myself, is a political newcomer and was willing to step in and run for Congress to bring common sense solutions to D.C.,” said de la Cruz, who early on had been encouraged to consider seeking the GOP nomination herself.

Roughly 7,700 voters had already cast a ballot in Tuesday’s special primary as of Wednesday afternoon either by mail or through in-person early voting, according to the secretary of state’s online tracker. Providence, East Providence, Pawtucket, Barrington and Bristol have the highest raw turnout so far.

Election officials have reminded voters that polling places will be closed on Monday due to the Labor Day holiday, and that they may be going to a different polling place than usual on Tuesday since fewer are being opened for the special election. Individuals can look up where they should go on Tuesday at

Ted Nesi ( 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.