PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Democrat Nellie Gorbea is seeking to recast the party’s gubernatorial primary as a two-way race between her and Dan McKee, after the new 12 News/Roger Williams University poll showed the pair are still neck and neck.
The survey of 405 likely Rhode Island Democratic primary voters put McKee at 28% and Gorbea at 25%, while 21% of voters are undecided. McKee’s lead over Gorbea is within the margin of error.
Reaction poured in after Tuesday night’s release of the poll, the first public survey of primary voters released since June, as candidates gird for a four-week sprint before polls close on Sept. 13.
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“This Democratic primary is coming down to a choice between one of the country’s least popular governors, Dan McKee, and Secretary Gorbea who has spent the last 30 years as a community leader and has served for eight years as an accomplished secretary of state,” Gorbea campaign manager Dana Walton said in a statement.
“Governor McKee has had 18 months to prove himself in office,” she said. “Instead – we are back to the days of Rhode Island making headlines with FBI investigations. We can do better.”
Walton’s comments were in part directed at a third Democrat, who went unnamed in the statement: former CVS executive Helena Foulkes, whose support has risen from 6% in May to 14% now. While Gorbea is leading among female voters, the poll showed 18% of them are supporting Foulkes.
That led one prominent Gorbea supporter — Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, a longtime media figure and Latino community leader — to publicly call on Foulkes to quit the race.
“If after $2 million in ads all you can muster is 14%, it’s time to endorse the other woman in the race,” Rodriguez tweeted. “That many undecided voters means they don’t want the status quo.”
But Foulkes advisers rejected the idea that she is now effectively serving as a spoiler who will help McKee defeat Gorbea.
“This is anyone’s race,” said Foulkes spokesperson Audrey Lucas. “The fact that two current statewide officeholders — the governor and secretary of state — are still stuck in the 20s is proof that Rhode Islanders are sick of the status quo and career politicians.”
Lucas continued, “With 21% of voters still undecided and 42% of decided voters open to changing their minds, debates are going to have a tremendous impact in this race. We are confident that once voters see Helena in action, they will move to our campaign and put us on the path to victory.”
(12 News is hosting a live televised Democratic gubernatorial debate that will air in prime time on Sept. 6.)
McKee’s campaign celebrated the poll showing that he retains a narrow edge in his bid for a full four-year term, following a rough stretch in public polling for the incumbent earlier this summer. Separately, new Board of Elections reports filed Tuesday night showed McKee had the most campaign cash among the Democrats, though Foulkes retains the ability to pour her own wealth into the race.
“Our campaign is entering the final four weeks of this race in an incredibly strong position: leading in the polls, backed by strong support from organized labor, and maintaining a significant resource advantage,” McKee campaign manager Brexton Isaacs said in a statement.
“These are all indicators that Rhode Islanders recognize the progress that Governor McKee has delivered – drivers aren’t receiving their usual car tax bill; veterans, seniors and families are looking forward to well-deserved tax relief; and workers are back to work at good-paying jobs,” Isaacs continued.
A fourth Democrat — former Secretary of State Matt Brown — received 34% of the vote against then-Gov. Gina Raimondo in the 2018 primary, but is only supported by 8% of voters in the new poll.
“This race remains wide open,” said Brown spokesperson A.J. Braverman. He pointed out that McKee and Gorbea have been in statewide office for eight years, while Foulkes has run over $1 million in TV ads since May.
“They are widely known, yet none of them have been able to consolidate the support they need to win,” he said. “Unsatisfied with those options, voters are looking for something else.”
Brown and state Sen. Cynthia Mendes — who is running alongside him as a candidate for lieutenant governor — sought to gain momentum Wednesday by buying $50,000 of TV time to start airing their first campaign commercial. The upbeat spot contrasts the two Democrats’ divergent music preferences — the Beatles vs. Beyonce — with their shared progressive policy goals.
The fifth Democrat in the primary, community activist Luis Daniel Muñoz, saw his poll numbers basically unchanged from May at 1%. He received just under 2% of the vote in 2018 when he ran for governor as an independent, and reported less than $1,000 in his campaign account as of Monday.
Muñoz has expressed frustration recently over the fact that he has not met the minimum criteria in order to qualify for the Sept. 6 debate. He said he doubted the poll results, but also said, “it would seem that undecided voters will dictate the outcome of this race, and it’s clear that they aren’t happy with insiders, or candidates that take the same old Reagonomics style of approach to economic development.”
The winner of the Democratic primary is expected to face Republican Ashley Kalus, who is the heavy favorite in the GOP primary against opponent Jonathan Riccitelli. Kalus has indicated plans to spend roughly $2.5 million on TV ads through November.
R.I. Republican Party Chair Sue Cienki argued the 12 News/RWU poll shows Kalus will have an opportunity this fall no matter who the other party nominates, since none of them are gaining broad support even among voters who vote in Democratic primaries.
“WPRI 12’s poll shows that there is no enthusiasm from primary voters for entrenched political insiders Dan McKee or Nellie Gorbea,” Cienki said in a statement.
“It is clear: Rhode Islanders need a real leader who will fight for them, solve the broken education system, and make the Ocean State a first-class destination for small businesses to grow and thrive,” she said. “Ashley Kalus is the fighter our state desperately needs, now more than ever.”
No public polling has been conducted so far testing how Kalus would fare against the various Democrats in November. The last time a Republican won the governor’s office was in 2006, when Don Carcieri was re-elected to a second term.
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