PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — When Congressman Jim Langevin announced in January he would retire rather than seek re-election, top Rhode Island Democrats were immediately nervous about whether they could hold the seat in a brutal political environment for the party.
Now, with the election barely four months away, evidence is piling up that they were right to be worried.
A new Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll shows Republican Allan Fung leading all his potential Democratic rivals for Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District seat, with 45% support against his toughest competitor, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, who was at 39%.
“This could be the marquee race in the state of Rhode Island this year,” said 12 News political analyst Joe Fleming. “More than the governor’s race, possibly.”
National experts are taking notice.
The Cook Political Report, a widely respected Capitol Hill forecaster, shifted its assessment of the 2nd District race from “Lean Democratic” to “Toss-Up” earlier this week. The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics followed suit Wednesday, shifting the race from “Likely Democratic” to “Leans Democratic” on its influential Sabato’s Crystal Ball website.
“It appears Democrats have a problem on their hands in Rhode Island,” wrote David Wasserman, the House elections editor for Cook.
Both parties are seizing on the new poll numbers and ratings changes to drive home the message that Republicans could win a U.S. House seat in Rhode Island for the first time since 1992 — Republicans to excite their base, Democrats to scare theirs.
In a message to supporters Monday, the Fung campaign declared: “In the first public poll, Allan is BEATING every single opponent the Democrats can throw at him!”
And a Wednesday email from the Rhode Island Democratic Party soliciting donations blared: “RHODE ISLAND’S 2ND CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT IS IN BIG TROUBLE!”
WATCH: One-on-one interview with Allan Fung.
Democrats’ problems in the 2nd District were apparent from the start, as party elites struggled to coalesce around a strong candidate in the days just after Langevin’s announcement. Magaziner at first indicated he would continue running for governor, only to soon switch over to the 2nd District race at the urging of other Democrats and labor leaders.
By contrast, Republicans rapidly closed ranks around their top recruit, Fung, who had been a popular mayor of one of the 2nd District’s biggest cities, Cranston, despite losing two races for governor.
The Rhode Island GOP went on from there to defy its reputation for self-inflicted wounds. First, a potentially formidable primary opponent to Fung — state Sen. Jessica de la Cruz — abandoned her campaign after less than a month and endorsed Fung.
Then on Wednesday, Fung’s other prominent primary opponent — former state Rep. Bob Lancia, who lost to Langevin in 2020 — announced he would end his campaign, as well.
“I have made the hardest decision of my life and decided that this time in history is not the right time for me,” Lancia said in a statement.
“We, as America First Patriots, must stay engaged and ensure that, as the Republican Party and its candidates move forward, they all do so with Constitutional purpose and ensuring the integrity of the election system,” he added.
Lancia’s decision — announced hours before the state GOP endorsement convention — means Fung should be able to win the nomination without having to play to Rhode Island’s small Republican voter base as he has in the past, letting him hew to the political center. It could speed up the flow of national money and resources to support him, as well.
Magaziner has had no such luck.
Despite a wide lead in early polling, Magaziner is still being challenged by multiple other Democrats in the Sept. 13 primary. They include Sarah Morgenthau, a well-funded and well-connected former Biden administration official; Joy Fox, a former aide to Langevin and Gina Raimondo; and former state Rep. David Segal, who has the support of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Yet Fleming said Magaziner’s rival Democrats are running out of time to dislodge him. “They have to come up with an issue that can motivate the voters and excite the voters,” he said. “So far none of the other candidates have done that.”
Magaziner’s primary opponents have argued one reason he isn’t the best option for their party is because he doesn’t live in the 2nd District; he and his wife own a home in Providence that lies about a mile into the 1st District, represented by David Cicilline. Magaziner has said they are actively looking for a house in the 2nd District so they can move there.
“That’s still the plan,” Magaziner said on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers in March, adding, “It’s a difficult housing market, as you know. So it’s not entirely in our control what the timing is.”
Morgenthau has also sought to use Magaziner’s gender against him. “It is inexcusable that in our state we have never elected a Democratic woman to Congress, and I reject outright the suggestion that the solution in November is to return a slate of solely men to represent us in Washington,” she said last week.
Yet Magaziner remains well-positioned to win the primary, with $1.4 million in the bank — far more than any of his rivals — and a higher profile thanks to eight years in statewide office. On Sunday night, he won the Rhode Island Democratic Party’s endorsement for the seat in a landslide. (Fox didn’t even place her name in contention.)
“We need Seth to join with Senator Reed, Senator Whitehouse and Congressman Cicilline to carry forth the Democratic values that are so critical to our future as a state and a nation,” said House Speaker Joe Shekarchi, who took a pass on the 2nd District race himself and who effectively controls the state party.
In another sign of party leaders rallying around Magaziner, his campaign announced he would hold a news conference Thursday with Langevin, where the outgoing incumbent is expected to endorse Magaziner to be his successor.
If Magaziner does prevail on Sept. 13, he will then dive into a two-month battle against Fung in a highly unfavorable climate. President Biden’s job approval rating has slumped to 34% in the 2nd District, according to the Globe/Suffolk poll, and two-thirds of Rhode Island voters say they don’t want Biden to seek another term in 2024.
David Paleologos, who conducted the new poll as director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, said the eventual Democratic nominee for the 2nd District will have to “thread the needle of connecting with undecided voters who believe the Rhode Island economy is awful, while supporting President Biden’s agenda which is seen as detrimental to that very economy.”
Fung raised over $500,000 during the first quarter, a sizable sum for a Republican in Rhode Island and more than any 2nd District candidate from either party except Magaziner. He has been heavily focused on inflation and high gas prices to indict Democratic control of Washington, while straining to keep his distance from national Republicans, notably Donald Trump. (The National Republican Congressional Committee has still put Fung on its “Young Guns” list of competitive House candidates.)
“It is not surprising that Rhode Islanders are rejecting Seth Magaziner’s out of touch agenda of increasing the cost of gasoline, championing drivers permits for people in our country illegally, and supporting those who want to defund the police,” the Fung campaign said in an unsigned statement Monday about the new poll.
“While Magaziner may visit us from time to time, he does not live in our congressional district and does not understand the priorities of our neighbors,” the statement continued.
Democrats have sought to shift voters’ focus to issues where Fung sounds more unsteady, from Trump’s support for the Jan. 6 riot to guns and abortion. They have seized on the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, as well as the recent spate of mass shootings, to argue he is out of step with local voters.
“If Allan Fung is elected, his first vote in Congress would be to give control of the House to Kevin McCarthy and these extreme Republicans who care more about doing Trump’s bidding than helping working people,” Magaziner’s campaign wrote in a recent fundraising email. “With everything from reproductive rights to gun safety legislation on the ballot, we can’t let that happen.”
Despite Rhode Island’s status as a blue state, this isn’t the first time in recent history Democrats have struggled in an open-seat race in a bad midterm year. Cicilline won his seat in Congress with just 51% of the vote against Republican John Loughlin in 2010, and Gina Raimondo beat Fung for governor with only 41% in 2014. In the end, it was enough for both.
“Democratic voters tend to come home toward the end,” Fleming said.
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