PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — With just two weeks left before Election Day, the two parties are pouring money and resources into Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District as Democrats struggle to convince voters they should keep a seat they’ve held since 1991.
The titanic battle between Republican Allan Fung and Democrat Seth Magaziner has become one of the most closely watched House contests in the country, as national observers wake up to the possibility that the GOP could pick up a seat in a blue state. Three polls this month showed Fung leading Magaziner by single-digits.
The two sides have dumped an extraordinary amount of money — for Rhode Island at least — into the fight for the 2nd District. Campaign officials on both sides are privately predicting a dogfight to the end, with the seat open for the first time in 22 years due to the unexpected retirement of longtime Democrat Jim Langevin.
A summary of ad spending obtained Tuesday by 12 News shows the two sides are currently on track to spend at least $8.2 million combined on broadcast, cable and radio advertising from Sept. 13 through the Nov. 8 election. Fung and his allies have a spending edge of roughly $600,000 so far.
Informed of the latest spending totals, 12 News political analyst Joe Fleming said: “Wow.”
“I’ve never seen numbers like that in a congressional district in Rhode Island,” he said. “People think this is a crucial seat for control of Congress at this point.”
That figure doesn’t include large sums which are also being spent on other electioneering costs such as direct mail to voters, campaign events and field canvassers out knocking on doors.
At leave five new TV commercials were released on Tuesday, and they revealed a subtle shift in messaging by Democrats after they spent months targeting Fung over his support for national Republicans and his position on abortion. (Fung now supports codifying Roe vs. Wade at the federal level but opposed a state abortion-rights law.)
A new commercial now being aired by House Majority PAC — a super PAC aligned with House Democrats — cites Fung’s support for Republican Kevin McCarthy to become House speaker and notes that McCarthy has supported changes to Social Security and Medicare. The spot elides Fung’s stated opposition to cutting those programs.
Democrats have also seized on the fact that the No. 2 House Republican, Steve Scalise, is headlining a fundraiser for Fung on Wednesday in Boston. (The event was first reported by Politico.) Scalise voted against certifying the results of the 2020 election.
Additionally, a New York Times story on the race Tuesday included an interview with Antonio Raposo, a Coventry businessman who said he hosted a fundraiser for Fung that raised $25,000. Raposo told the newspaper he attended former President Trump’s rally to protest the election results on Jan. 6, 2020, but that he did not join the subsequent Capitol riot.
“Allan Fung is too weak to ever stand up to MAGA Republicans on behalf of Rhode Island,” said James Singer, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Don’t buy the campaign ads – in private, Fung has their back, just like he will in Washington.”
Asked about the Scalise fundraiser during a live interview Tuesday on 12 News at 4, Fung insisted there was no disconnect between his campaign message of bipartisan bonhomie and his links to Washington Republicans who denied the 2020 results.
“I’m not just running as a moderate — I am one of these centrists, and that’s what 12 years as mayor of our state’s second-largest city have shown,” Fung said.
“We’re even getting support from people across the country because they believe in me and my brand of wanting to bring back that New England centrist that’s missing,” he said. “We don’t even have a single Republican, not just in Rhode Island but in all of New England, in the House of Representatives. I want to be that breath of fresh air that’s coming back to Washington, D.C., working across the aisle, doing the right thing.”
Magaziner is facing his own onslaught of criticism, hammered on the airwaves by Republicans as an out-of-touch elitist. They have also highlighted his support for President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to argue he shares the blame for the inflation crisis.
“Seth Magaziner is already promising to be another tax-and-spend liberal that would further destroy Rhode Island families’ finances,” said Samantha Bullock, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The attack ads have been funded by the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Republicans, as well as the NRCC. Their support has allowed Fung to use his own campaign dollars to run generally positive spots, including a new ad Tuesday called “Working Together” that he taped at local restaurant Iggy’s.
The Republicans have also broadened their criticism of Magaziner in recent days, tarring him as too left-wing because he posted a photo from the 2020 Black Lives Matter protest near a marcher holding a “Defund the Police” sign. (Magaziner has said he never supported defunding the police, and that there were thousands marching.)
Appearing Monday on 12 News at 4, Magaziner called the GOP ads “ridiculous.”
“I’m running for Congress because I want to fight for working people in Rhode Island,” he said. “I want to take on the big oil and drug companies that are overcharging people. I want to fight for higher wages and better benefits, and to protect fundamental rights like a woman’s right to choose, which have been stripped away.”
He added, “We’re now getting into the last couple weeks of the campaign and the false ads are flying.”
Separately on Tuesday, the Fung campaign criticized Magaziner for featuring footage of Providence state Rep. David Morales, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, cheering him at a rally.
“If Seth Magaziner, the son of a multimillionaire, wants to try masquerading as someone who cares about the working class and seniors living on fixed incomes in his latest ad, maybe he shouldn’t prominently feature the very socialist extremists who want to defund our police and destroy our economy,” said Steven Paiva, a Fung spokesperson.
Magaziner’s spokesperson, Patricia Soccaras, declined to directly address Morales’s appearance in the commercial.
Democrats have been growing increasingly nervous about whether Magaziner’s message is breaking through with undecided voters.
This month’s 12 News/Roger Williams University poll showed the biggest issue for 2nd District voters by far is the cost of living, but the Democratic campaign has focused heavily on abortion, McCarthy and painting Fung as a right-wing extremist — even after Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 House Democrat, told reporters that is untrue.
A new TV spot that the Magaziner campaign released Tuesday goes in a different direction, using footage from a campaign rally he held Saturday with U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh to advance a populist economic message.
“We need leaders in Washington who are prepared to fight for working people,” Magaziner declares in the ad. “The big oil companies, the big drug companies, the big health insurance companies, are making billions of dollars of profits while they overcharge people. How do they get away with it? It’s because there are a lot of politicians that they have in their pockets!”
The Magaziner campaign has also quietly put up a second new commercial, this one leading with a critique of Fung’s work as a lobbyist for MetLife in the early 2000s, a topic that Democrats have raised sporadically but less frequently than other issues.
Magaziner will get more high-profile support on Wednesday, when First Lady Jill Biden visits Providence for a daylong round of campaigning. The White House updated her initial schedule to add another event with Magaziner, a free spaghetti dinner for voters in Cranston, to her agenda. (She will also be campaigning for Democratic Gov. Dan McKee.)
Fung has argued the White House’s intervention is actually a sign of weakness considering Biden won Rhode Island by double-digits two years ago. “They’re sending the wife and not the president himself, because they know how widely unpopular he is,” he told The Times.
With early voting under way since last Wednesday and the local airwaves increasingly swamped — especially with other campaigns also fighting for residents’ attention – it’s an open question what will sway those who are still undecided. A third candidate is also running in the 2nd District, William Gilbert, who is listed on ballots as a “Moderate.”
More than 22,000 votes had already been cast statewide as of Tuesday, according to a tracker published by the secretary of state’s office.
Fung and Magaziner met for their first televised debate last week on WPRI 12, and the hourlong face-off was widely considered a draw. There is only one other scheduled TV debate, which will air Nov. 3 live at 4 p.m. on WJAR-TV. The pair have also agreed to two radio meetings, a forum last week on The Public’s Radio and a debate Friday on WPRO.
“Both sides feel they can win this race, and both sides are going to do everything they can to try and win it,” Fleming said.
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