PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — With the Rhode Island primary now just 27 days away, outside groups have begun revealing plans to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to boost their favored Democratic candidates before voters go to the polls Sept. 13.
“These independent expenditures are not tied to the campaigns,” said 12 News political analyst Joe Fleming. “These are the people that can just do positives or negatives — they can support candidate A or they can do a piece against candidate B.”
The League of Conservation Voters Action Fund, a super PAC affiliated with the prominent environmental group, confirmed Tuesday it has reserved $350,000 in TV advertising time to support Seth Magaziner, the Democratic frontrunner in the 2nd Congressional District, during the final weeks of the primary race.
The group endorsed Magaziner back in May, arguing he “has the proven track record of working to grow our clean energy economy and fighting for the solutions we need to combat the climate crisis.” Its commercial has not yet been released.
An analysis by Ad Impact LLC, which tracks media buys, shows Magaziner’s own campaign has reserved a total of $526,000 in broadcast TV time through Sept. 13, a total that includes ads which have already aired. Between his own spending and the environmental group, Magaziner is on track to have a major edge in TV ads down the stretch.
An exclusive 12 News/Roger Williams University poll released Tuesday showed Magaziner maintaining a wide lead in the 2nd District primary, with 37% support. His closest rivals — Sarah Morgenthau and David Segal — were at just 8%. But roughly one in three voters were still undecided.
The only other 2nd District candidate or allied outside group that has bought TV time for the remainder of the primary is Morgenthau, who is currently on the air. Segal and another Democrat, Joy Fox, have been investing money in mailers sent directly to voters. The winner of the primary will face Republican Allan Fung in November.
In the Democratic primary for governor, incumbent Dan McKee is getting a big boost from groups affiliated with the Laborers International Union of America, which endorsed McKee last winter. Armand Sabitoni, a top Laborers official, is one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes players in Rhode Island politics.
An entity calling itself “Forward Rhode Island” told the Board of Elections it has received $500,000 tied to the Laborers, and indicated plans to spend the money airing TV spots. The first commercial, a positive commercial touting McKee’s record in office, is starting to run this week.
A spokesperson for the Laborers did not respond to a request for more details Tuesday about the new group’s plans.
The new 12 News/RWU poll showed McKee with a narrow edge over his chief Democratic primary rival, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, leading her 28% to 25%. Former CVS executive Helena Foulkes was in third place, at 14%, with the other two candidates in single-digits. But roughly one in five primary voters remain undecided.
So far no outside groups have disclosed plans to spend significant money supporting Gorbea or Foulkes, though both have the backing of some well-funded organizations which could do so if they decided it was worth the investment. Gorbea is backed by Emily’s List and the Latino Victory Fund, while a group called 4RI PAC was established in March to support Foulkes.
Outside money is also coming in to bolster Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, who is seeking a full term after being appointed by McKee last year as his own successor in the job.
Save Democracy PAC, a group affiliated with the Democratic Lieutenant Governors Association, said Wednesday it plans to spend $200,000 airing a new 30-second TV commercial that supports Matos. The spot will begin running Monday on broadcast stations and cable channels.
“SD PAC is supporting Sabina Matos because of her commitment to defending democracy, voting rights, and getting dark money out of politics,” Matt Liebman, the group’s president, said in a statement. “SD PAC is dedicated to supporting diverse leaders who will stand up to MAGA extremism while fighting for the rights of all Americans. Sabina is that leader.”
The new 12 News/RWU poll showed Matos with 23% support, ahead of state Rep. Deb Ruggiero at 14% and state Sen. Cynthia Mendes at 9%. But half of primary voters said they were still undecided in the low-profile contest. The trio debated on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers earlier this month.
Providence mayoral candidate Brett Smiley will be the beneficiary of $50,000 spent on his behalf by the LGBTQ Victory Fund, Board of Elections reports show. Smiley faces Gonzalo Cuervo and Nirva LaFortune in the Sept. 13 primary.
Fleming said outside groups can serve as a force multiplier for campaigns because they supplement the money candidates are already spending out of their own accounts.
“If they know there’s independent expenditures coming, they know they may only have X number of dollars to spend but there may be other groups out there doing advertising for them, which is counting for them,” he said.
However, unlike the actual campaigns, outside groups don’t get to pay lower rates for TV time — and the cost of airing a commercial can rise rapidly in the final weeks of an election as the airwaves get crowded. Too many ads airing at once can also be a problem of its own, Fleming said.
“With everybody coming in with ads, people may get all confused,” he said. “You may see three ads alone with one commercial break on a TV show.” Still, he said it’s possible more outside groups will get start spending money in Rhode Island between now and Sept. 13.
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 Threads, Twitter and Facebook.