PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Democrat Gabe Amo will take on Republican Gerry Leonard in the November special election for former Congressman David Cicilline’s old seat, as the GOP seeks an upset victory in a district the party hasn’t won since 1992.

Amo, a 35-year-old former White House staffer for the Biden and Obama administrations, won a surprisingly easy victory in Tuesday’s crowded Democratic primary. Amo had 33% of the vote as of 11 p.m., well ahead of second-place finisher Aaron Regunberg, who had 25%.

“I look forward to spending the next several weeks going to every one of the 19 cities and towns of the 1st Congressional District and meeting with the supporters of the other folks who were great candidates in this race, and encouraging them to unify,” Amo said during a live interview on 12 News at 11.

Watch: Amo victory speech (Story continues below.)

Among the other 10 Democratic candidates, state Sen. Sandra Cano was in third place with 14%, while Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos was trailing with 8%. Voter turnout came in at the higher end of pre-election forecasts, with over 38,000 ballots cast in the Democratic primary, though that was still only a tiny share of all eligible voters.

Republicans overwhelmingly nominated Leonard, a 58-year-old retired U.S. Marine Corps officer, in a primary that drew only about 4,000 voters to the polls. He had 76% of the vote against former Middletown Town Councilor Terri Flynn after receiving endorsements from the state party and multiple prominent Republican elected leaders.

“Our campaign will focus on the people of Rhode Island not partisan political agendas,” Leonard said in a statement. “While talking heads and political operatives seek to divide, my mission is to unite Rhode Islanders no matter their political persuasion. In D.C. my mission is clear, put Rhode Islanders first and stop extremism from both sides of the aisle.”

Story continues below video.

While both Amo and Leonard are making their first runs for elected office, Amo is heavily favored heading into the fall; the 1st Congressional District voted for Joe Biden over Donald Trump by a double-digit margin in 2020. The last Republican to win the seat was Ron Machtley, who served three terms in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

The special election is Nov. 7.

The Democratic primary results revealed Amo’s strength across the 1st District, which stretches along the eastern side of Rhode Island from Woonsocket to Newport. Despite spending much of the race in the shadow of first Matos and then Regunberg, Amo won all but three of the district’s 19 communities. (Regunberg won Providence, Cano won Central Falls, and state Rep. Stephen Casey won Woonsocket.)

But Matos’s campaign was terminally damaged by the mid-July revelation that her team had submitted fraudulent signatures on her nomination papers, while Regunberg struggled to grow his support beyond left-wing voters once the race turned into a head-to-head contest between him and Amo toward the end.

Story continues below video.

“Towards the end people looked at Aaron Regunberg, and he was bringing a lot of very liberal people in — AOC, Bernie Sanders,” said 12 News political analyst Joe Fleming. “I think some of the more moderate Democrats might have said, ‘Well, I don’t want anyone that liberal in Congress.’ So they wanted somebody else.”

“Well, nobody else was on TV towards the end except Gabe Amo,” Fleming said. “And I think Gabe was able to get that message across.”

Ron Klain, who was Biden’s first White House chief of staff and endorsed Amo early, hailed the result in Rhode Island as a victory for the president, as well.

Story continues below video.

“For pundits who dismiss Bidenism as a force in our party, @gabeamo just won a crowded primary by centering his campaign on his experience working for — and close alliance with — @joebiden!” Klain wrote on social media.

There was similar euphoria over Amo’s victory from Washington Congresswoman Suzan DelBene, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “With Gabe on the ticket, Republican extremists don’t stand a chance at flipping this seat in November,” DelBene said in a statement.

There was no immediate statement issued by DelBene’s counterparts at the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Amo, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from West Africa, would be the first person of color to represent Rhode Island in Congress. “The election of Gabe Amo to Congress stands as a watershed moment in Rhode Island’s history,” the Black Lives Matter Rhode Island Political Action Committee declared in a statement.

Matos added, “While I was hoping for a different outcome, tonight’s results show that Rhode Islanders are ready for more diverse representation in Congress for the first time. We can all celebrate and take pride in this historic milestone for our state.”

Story continues below video.

Rhode Island GOP Chairman Joe Powers expressed optimism about the fall campaign, citing both Leonard and Niyoka Powell, the Republican candidate in the special election for R.I. Senate District 1 against newly minted Democratic nominee Jake Bissaillon.

“This November, Rhode Islanders will have an opportunity to elect newcomers to Washington, D.C., and Smith Hill,” he said. “Now, more than ever, Rhode Islanders deserve leaders who will put the needs of working families ahead of special interests.”

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.