Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column for WPRI.com — as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow me on Twitter and on Facebook.
1. Can Ashley Kalus beat Dan McKee? That’s the question Rhode Island politicos are debating as attention turns from McKee’s narrow primary win over Helena Foulkes to the November election. The case for skepticism is clear. Kalus has no deep roots in Rhode Island, having only registered to vote in the state last winter, while the incumbent has unimpeachable Rhody bona fides. She has struggled at times in press interviews. She has praised Ron DeSantis and indicated she would not have signed the 2019 state law codifying abortion rights — stances which could alienate swing voters in a blue state. (The Democratic Governors Association already has a TV attack ad out highlighting the abortion comment.) And it’s been 16 years since a Republican managed to win a statewide or federal race in Rhode Island. Yet there are also two big reasons to think Kalus could be competitive this fall: money and McKee. Kalus has deep pockets; she’s already put $2.7 million of her own money into her campaign and shows no signs of running out of cash anytime soon. She’s plowed much of that into a TV advertising blitz that has raised her profile, and she’s now on the air with a brutal attack ad savaging McKee over the FBI investigation into the ILO contract. Kalus also drew the opponent she wanted; her team was alarmed as Foulkes gained momentum in the final days of the Democratic primary, and breathed a sign of relief when McKee won. No polling has been conducted testing a McKee-Kalus matchup, but the governor had the worst job approval rating in the country as of July, and two out of three Democratic primary voters refused to support him for a full term Tuesday. Plenty of Democrats think McKee should be able to dispatch with Kalus so long as he makes no major mistakes over the next eight weeks. But many in the Rhode Island GOP — more unified than usual this election season — have high hopes she can score an upset.
2. As I wrote in my analysis of the Democratic gubernatorial primary results early Wednesday morning, Dan McKee never wins easily, but he always wins. (That link is also where you’ll find my take on what went wrong for Nellie Gorbea and Helena Foulkes.) Yet even in victory McKee and his team seemed determined to make their own lives harder — as evidenced by Tuesday night’s now-infamous phone call snafu. Most of you have probably seen the video by now, but to summarize: McKee staffer Eva Marie Mancuso ran up to him with a cell phone as he began his victory speech, telling him Foulkes was on the line, presumably to concede. Scowling at Mancuso, McKee said on live TV, “No – that’s not going to happen, Eva. That’s not going to happen. Eva — hang up on them. Hang up on them!” It was a cringe-inducing moment, made worse when McKee and his allies immediately blamed Foulkes for the governor’s reaction — only to flip-flop within 48 hours and say it was actually the fault of McKee’s own campaign. Now to be sure, was this an earth-shattering incident in the big scheme of things? Of course not. But it partially overshadowed the governor’s big night, created a messy three-day news cycle, distracted and demoralized McKee’s own team, and delayed Foulkes’ eventual endorsement of McKee. Considering how close the governor came to losing on Tuesday, and how serious Kalus and the Republicans are about defeating him, his team is going to want to limit the number of unforced errors they make this fall.
3. After an election it’s always fascinating to look at the geographic distribution of support, so our Eli Sherman made an interactive map breaking down the Democratic gubernatorial vote by community. Dan McKee’s best municipality was his hometown of Cumberland, where he got 46%, while Helena Foulkes topped out at 44% in Little Compton and Nellie Gorbea hit 50% in Central Falls.
4. Neither Dan McKee nor Ashley Kalus will need a majority of the vote to win this fall, since there will actually be five candidates for governor listed on the November ballot. One is Elijah Gizzarelli, the Libertarian Party of Rhode Island’s candidate, who kicks off his campaign today at Bo’s Bar and Billiards in Warwick. Also running are Paul Rianna Jr., a vocal critic of the governor’s vaccine mandate for medical personnel, and Zachary Hurwitz, a freshman at URI.
5. For an election with lots of important races on the line, this year’s Democratic primary was not a particularly big draw for voters. The Board of Elections is currently reporting about 113,000 votes in the race for governor; local historian Steve Frias notes that’s the lowest turnout in a Democratic primary with a contested gubernatorial race since 1994. (Combining his historical knowledge with his hopes for the GOP ticket this fall, Frias also pointed out: “Since the establishment of the primary system in 1948, Republicans have ONLY been elected to the governorship for the first time after a hotly contested divisive Democratic primary.”) Republican primary turnout was a little over 20,000, on track to be the lowest this century. Put it together and only about 16% of eligible Rhode Island voters bothered to cast a ballot in this year’s primary election — a potentially ominous sign for November turnout if enthusiasm doesn’t pick up. On this week’s Newsmakers, Cara Cromwell also noted that campaigns may need to start rethinking their strategies to account for how many voters are now casting their ballots well before the actual day of the election due to the growing use of early and mail-in voting. Helena Foulkes actually defeated Dan McKee among primary voters who went to the polls on Tuesday, but got slaughtered in the advance vote.
6. The primary is over, but the fallout continues: on Friday the state GOP — cheered on by Common Cause Rhode Island — filed a Board of Elections complaint against the Latino Victory Fund for failing to list its top five donors in an 11th-hour TV attack ad.
7. Seth Magaziner rolled into the general election with a bigger mandate from 2nd District Democrats than even his own campaign expected, topping 50% of the vote despite splitting the vote with five challengers. And Allan Fung didn’t even face a primary in the end thanks to the efforts of Republican leaders to avoid a divisive nomination fight. That means both men can kick off the fall campaign focused on the opposition, without worrying about the need to bring their own parties back together. And as I reported Thursday night, national Democrats and Republicans didn’t waste a minute before launching a full-scale battle for the seat. The GOP hasn’t won the 2nd District since 1988, when Claudine Schneider earned a final term, but D.C. Democrats believe no open seat in New England is more at risk of flipping allegiance in November.
8. With his party’s chosen successor now in place, Jim Langevin is coming under increasing pressure to put some of his $773,000 campaign war chest to work helping Seth Magaziner hold his seat. The Beltway outlet Punchbowl News on Friday tagged Langevin as one of the incumbent House Democrats who has yet to come anywhere near paying their dues to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — and that group got a stern closed-door lecture from Speaker Pelosi earlier this week. A Langevin spokesperson told me Friday night the congressman will pay another $30,000 in dues, which will bring him to 46% of party leaders’ target, as well as contribute $25,000 to support “Red to Blue” and “frontliner” House candidates (after providing them $0 so far). Langevin is also reported to be “actively considering how to best support Rhode Island Democrats up and down the ballot” with the over $700,000 he will still have on hand after that. Meanwhile, look for the congressional delegation to line up behind Magaziner as soon as Monday morning.
9. Barring a meteor strike or some other stunning turn of events, Providence has a new mayor: Brett Smiley. His primary campaign was a bit like Smiley himself: low-key, focused and methodical. Smiley and his pugnacious senior adviser, Emily Crowell, were able to run that sort of campaign in part because the mayoral contest was rather sedate by the standards of Providence politics. Unlike others who won Tuesday night, Smiley has the luxury of turning to his transition now, since no independents or Republicans are vying for the seat in November. “I get to start before Day One,” Smiley told Kim Kalunian during a 12 News at 4 interview on Friday. “I think staffing and personnel and talent is really the most important thing in the near-term, to find the best and brightest and most experienced and capable people who want to serve in the new administration. Because it’s not just the mayor — it’s who his team is.” He said to expect some personnel announcements next week. Smiley also put Providence’s hospitals on notice as he prepares to renegotiate the city’s PILOT payment agreements starting early in 2023. “These institutions have a major fiscal impact on us as a city, but are also important employers,” he said. “My plan is to do a true negotiation. … It’s really important to me that the hospitals are a part of that agreement, because they haven’t always been.”
10. There wasn’t a lot of drama in many of the other races for State House positions. James Diossa’s emphatic victory over Stefan Pryor was an impressive achievement considering the money Pryor brought to the race and the tough scrutiny Diossa faced; on the other hand, Diossa had a six-month head start and far deeper relationships in Rhode Island Democratic politics. But Sabina Matos’s nomination for lieutenant governor was widely expected, just as Gregg Amore’s for secretary of state was all but preordained. In General Assembly races, it was generally a good night to be an incumbent, regardless of ideology. Only one sitting senator failed to win renomination: Warwick Democrat Jeanine Calkin, who lost to Mike McKenney — the same opponent she beat in 2020 and who beat her in 2018. (At this rate, Calkin and McKenney might as well just agree to trade off every two years.) Senate President Dominick Ruggerio’s re-election race turned out to be just as uncompetitive as his aides had claimed it would be, with Ruggerio beating Lenny Cioe 59% to 35% (after redrawing the district and massively outspending Cioe). The House was slightly more interesting, with three incumbent Democrats going to defeat: Anastasia Williams, Jean Philippe Barros and Jim McLaughlin. After 30 years in the House, Williams didn’t sound particularly disappointed, telling my colleague Anita Baffoni: “It was bittersweet, but I felt a huge relief.” The ouster of Barros was notable, considering he’d been mentioned as a potential successor to Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien someday. And House Speaker Joe Shekarchi had even less trouble than Ruggerio fending off a progressive challenger, defeating Jacqueline Anderson 70% to 30%.
11. How much national interest is there in the Martha’s Vineyard migrants saga? One small data point: a brief exchange with Massachusetts Congressman Bill Keating, who represents the island, had more than 500,000 views as of Friday night. Keating told me the incident has only reinforced his belief that Congress needs to tackle a rewrite of immigration law on a bipartisan basis, and he argued Democrats are willing to find common ground with Republicans to get it done.
12. Jack Reed had his own Genius Bar appointment this week: he met in Washington with Apple CEO Tim Cook, who was making the rounds on Capitol Hill. Reed’s office says the pair “discussed a range of tech topics and international affairs issues.”
13. Via Politico Playbook: “SPOTTED at a party for Rep. David Cicilline’s (D-R.I) book ‘House on Fire’ at Mandy Grunwald’s house in Georgetown on Wednesday: Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) and Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), Mike Manatos, Jonathan Martin, Abby Tracy, Mike Donilon, Matt Gerson, Jonathan Capehart, Tom Quinn, Lyndon Boozer, Gerry Harrington, Judith Pryor, Rich Luchette, Luke Barr, Nandita Bose, Ben Siegel, Ramsey Touchberry, Peter Karafotas, Jane Moffat and E.J. Dionne.”
14. A stark warning from Lifespan this week as the state’s largest hospital group announced a $49 million loss for the summer quarter: “While we continue to prioritize investments in the resources that allow us to offer excellent care, the health care system in Rhode Island is in crisis.”
15. Here’s a dispatch from my Target 12 colleague Tolly Taylor: “When Rhode Island K-12 public school districts filled out applications to receive their portions of $330 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding, they had to explain in three different sections how they would ‘prioritize’ students in foster care and other vulnerable student groups. But a recent Rhode Island Kids Count analysis found district plans aren’t devoting any ARPA dollars to programs specifically for students in foster care. I talked to several foster parents, students and advocates about what the pandemic has been like for students in foster care. ‘I don’t think the schools are even thinking about subgroups,’ said foster parent Jennifer Keating. She called it ‘appalling’ that districts aren’t targeting students in foster care with federal dollars, ‘because these kids have so many needs and they’re really good kids.'”
16. Tim White and Eli Sherman look at the growing threat of “ghost guns” in Rhode Island.
17. Congratulations to my pal Tony Petrarca on his induction into the Rhode Island Radio and TV Hall of Fame. As I said on Twitter, Tony is undoubtedly the most widely known (and widely loved) member of the WPRI 12 staff — yet probably the most down to earth, too. And he really, really, really loves the weather.
18. This week on Newsmakers — a political roundtable recaps the results of the primary election and looks ahead to the November election. Watch Sunday at 5:30 a.m. on WPRI 12 or 10 a.m. on Fox Providence, or listen on the radio Sundays at 6 p.m. on WPRO. You can also subscribe to Newsmakers as a podcast on iTunes (or wherever you get your podcasts). See you back here next Saturday morning.
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