Ted Nesi

Nesi's Notes: Nov. 10

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Happy Saturday! Here's another edition of my weekend column for WPRI.com - as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com and follow @tednesi on Twitter.

1. Why did Gina Raimondo win big? Arguably it was because of how much her team feared she could lose. The Democratic incumbent's political advisers started the year knowing she was vulnerable, with a job rating that had generally hovered around 40%, and nothing could be taken for granted. So they didn't wait to get started. The campaign began ramping up in the spring, relatively early for Rhode Island, giving her months to build a get-out-the-vote machine that eventually identified more than 100,000 voters. She began airing TV ads in June, and never went off the air. And they stuck to two simple messages: Gina Raimondo is a loyal Democrat who is improving the economy, and Allan Fung is a Trump Republican who mismanaged Cranston. All of this, of course, was powered by Raimondo's extraordinary and oft-criticized fundraising, which allowed her a four-year campaign budget of $8 million. (And that doesn't even touch millions more spent by the state party, the DGA, Emily's List and Save the Children Action Network.) The result: an emphatic 15-point victory Tuesday, with Raimondo taking nearly 53% of the vote in a six-way field - significantly beating expectations through most of the year. Raimondo is the first governor elected with a majority since Don Carcieri in 2006, and she now has the opportunity and the challenge of managing her newly accumulated political capital. Here's the standard she set for herself in her victory speech: "We cannot stop until everyone feels this economic recovery. Until everyone can be lifted out of poverty by getting a good job. Until every single child regardless of zip code or income or race has a chance to go to a well-funded, flourishing and high-performing public school. Until we meet the needs of every senior citizen in Rhode Island ... and every veteran. ... We have work to do."

2. Allan Fung's donning of a Trump hat last year may be the most damaging headwear choice at an inauguration since William Henry Harrison. While there are many reasons Gina Raimondo tripled her 2014 margin over Fung, a major one was the Republican nominee's inability to distance himself from a president who is deeply unpopular in Rhode Island. (Imagine for a moment how this campaign might have played out if Hillary Clinton were in the White House instead.) There's no doubt the Fung campaign was swamped financially by Raimondo and her allies. But his advisers also made a conscious choice to run a low-profile campaign, holding almost no media events until after the primary. "He really violated one of the basic 101s of campaigning - he allowed Gina Raimondo to define who he was as a candidate because he wasn't out there for months saying, 'This is who I am,'" political analyst Lisa Pelosi, who was Gov. Lincoln Almond's communications director, said on this week's Newsmakers. Fung's disapproval rating shot from 26% in February to 45% by October, nearly eliminating his advantage over her in the popularity department. Of course, no discussion of Fung's travails can overlook the candidacy of Republican-turned-independent Joe Trillo, a relentless critic of the Cranston mayor. Trillo only got 4% of the vote on Tuesday, but he sucked up a far larger share of media coverage, debate time and Fung campaign attention. Fung has two more years as mayor before term limits end his time at City Hall. What's his next move? "It’s going to be a very busy two years, with lots of surprises," Fung tweeted with a wink on Thursday.

3. Governor Raimondo may not be putting her fundraising Rolodex away anytime soon. The governor is widely expected to take over as the next chair of the Democratic Governors Association whenever the incumbent, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, moves on. With Inslee about to finish his one-year term and contemplating a presidential bid, it's possible Raimondo could be elected DGA chair at its next meeting during the first week of December. It's an auspicious time to take over the group, with Democrats picking up seven governorships this week. The job would likely further raise Raimondo's national profile, and would also likely require one of her senior aides to decamp for the DGA.

4. How big a problem does Speaker Mattiello have on his hands? He defeated Steven Frias more convincingly in their rematch Tuesday, but his victory was partly overshadowed by a bloc of 18 Democrats announcing Tuesday they would not support his re-election as speaker. The rebels unloaded on Mattiello in speeches at a tense closed-door caucus Thursday, but he still managed to win the balloting for speaker 44-21, with a half-dozen votes to spare, and expressed confidence he can maintain that support until the real vote happens in January. Yet the dissident Democrats will make the legislative math more challenging for Mattiello next session. Combining the 21 rebels with the nine Republicans puts 30 reps in opposition to Mattiello - they'd only need to persuade eight colleagues to defeat a bill on the floor, and they are already numerous enough to block the budget (which needs 50 votes). Mattiello will presumably remove his critics from chairmanships and key committees, forcing him to find new leadership; he also needs to replace Cale Keable on Judiciary, perhaps with Bob Craven or Stephen Ucci. Still, it's important not to overstate the speaker's predicament. He has an enormous number of tools at his disposal, from bills and legislative grants to parking spaces, and his own conservative instincts could make it easier for him to do deals with new House GOP Leader Blake Filippi.

5. The Senate Democratic caucus was a more collegial affair (and open to the press), with Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey both receiving a warm welcome and near-unanimous support. Senator-elect Sam Bell, the progressive activist, made immediately clear he plans to be more outspoken than the average senator, joining Donna Nesselbush in questioning the caucus rules and leadership (as well as Ruggerio's highly critical email to senators about Nesselbush earlier in the week).

6. Tuesday saw the second-biggest turnout for a midterm election in Rhode Island in at least half a century, with roughly 377,000 voters going to the polls, up almost 15% from four years ago. (The only bigger midterm: 2006.) The result was a wipeout for the Rhode Island GOP, with all the party's statewide and federal candidates receiving less than 40% of the vote, and its General Assembly cohort falling to 14 lawmakers out of 113. The state has developed a clear geographic divide (as this map shows), with an island of red communities in the interior west surrounded by blue ones by the coast and in the east. The national climate clearly had an effect: the AP exit poll showed 66% of Rhode Island voters think the country is headed in the wrong direction, and 58% disapprove of President Trump's job performance. There's no easy answer for local Republican leaders, who are facing the same problems as their counterparts in other Northeast states. Even the mega-popular Charlie Baker had no coattails Tuesday in Massachusetts. House GOP Leader Blake Filippi tried to draw a distinction Wednesday, telling the AP, "We're more like the John Chafee Republicans than the Donald Trump Republicans, but we were up against those headwinds."

7. With the election over, attention will now turn to the scramble for leadership seats in Congress, including David Cicilline's bid for assistant majority leader, House Democrats' No. 4 job. It's currently a two-person race pitting Cicilline against New Mexico's Ben Ray Luján, after Illinois' Cheri Bustos decided to run for a different job. Luján could be a tough challenger for Cicilline, since he just had a very successful run as head of the House Democrats' campaign arm, the DCCC. Then again, all bets are off if it turns out Nancy Pelosi doesn't have the votes for speaker, scrambling the races for jobs further down the food chain.

8. Our weekly dispatch from WPRI.com's Dan McGowan: "It wasn’t a surprise that Mayor Elorza won re-election this week, but even some of Providence’s smartest political observers didn’t think he’d beat independent Dee Dee Witman in a 30-point landslide. Throughout the day on Tuesday, some of Witman’s top aides maintained they would keep it close. So how did things go so wrong? For one, the campaign believed there would be a one-to-one transfer of votes from Buddy Cianci in 2014 to Witman, which failed to account for the fact that Cianci had a 40-year relationship with Providence voters while Witman started the race in September with virtually zero name recognition. Camp Witman also operated under the idea that it would break close to even on the East Side, based largely on the fact that she lives there. But even that doesn’t tell the whole story: if you were to erase every single vote Elorza received on the East Side, he still would have beaten Witman by a healthy margin."

9. Don't miss Dan McGowan's deep-dive on how Jorge Elorza won. A great point made by the mayor's campaign manager, David Allard, about what really matters: "I don’t care about endorsements. I care about walking. I want voters to see they’re with him."

10. Want more election analysis? Read my five initial takeaways.

11. Stonehill's Peter Ubertaccio breaks down the challenges facing Charlie Baker in his second term.

12. FM Global CEO Tom Lawson is feeling optimistic about Rhode Island's business climate after about five years leading one of the state's largest companies. "I have seen a lot of things different than they were five years ago," Lawson said on last week's Executive Suite. He said he has been pleased to see state leaders focus on education and infrastructure as they develop policy. Lawson is also a member of the still-new Partnership for Rhode Island, a group of CEOs who lead heavyweight local companies including Hasbro, CVS, Citizens and Bank of America. "It is a fairly cohesive group," he said. "We're all after the same things. We all have opinions, as you might guess, but I think it's a non-political group that's really focused on making Rhode Island a great place to live and work."

13. Kim Kalunian finds hospital ER diversions skyrocketing in Rhode Island.

14. Sunday is Veterans Day, which brings to mind a little-known bit of Rhode Island military history: the state was home to three small POW camps at the end of World War II.

15. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a political roundtable breaks down this week's election results. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – HopeHealth President and CEO Diana Franchitto. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 8 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). Catch both shows back-to-back on your radio Sundays at 6 p.m. on WPRO-AM 630 and WEAN-FM 99.7. See you back here next Saturday morning.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook


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