PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Multiple incumbent state lawmakers, including Senate Finance Committee Chairman William Conley, appeared at risk of losing their seats based on initial results from Tuesday’s primary election, as candidates wait to see the results from mail ballots.
Rhode Islanders went to bed Tuesday night unusually uncertain about the outcomes of the races. The R.I. Board of Elections warned it could take until Thursday to finish tabulating the results from over 33,000 mail ballots, accounting for about 39% of total turnout. That’s a far higher percentage than usual, driven by some voters’ desire to avoid polling places amid the pandemic.
Already, though, progressives seem on track to make gains in both the House and Senate chambers, raising the hopes of activists who want to see a leftward shift on Smith Hill. Multiple activist groups including the Rhode Island Working Families Party, Reclaim RI and the Rhode Island Political Cooperative all took credit for helping progressives advance.
Conley, an East Providence Democrat, has faced a backlash in his hometown for working as an attorney for the company seeking to redevelop Metacomet Golf Club. He drew an energetic challenger in Cynthia Mendes, and she led Conley by a roughly 2-to-1 margin as of 11 p.m. Tuesday in Senate District 18, which covers parts of East Providence and Pawtucket.
If Conley is defeated, it would open up the top spot on Senate Finance, one of the most powerful posts in the chamber. State Sens. Ryan Pearson, D-Cumberland, and Lou DiPalma, D-Middletown, are among those being mentioned as possible replacements.
Other incumbent senators who could be in trouble based on Tuesday’s initial results were Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence, down 232 votes to challenger Tiara Mack; Sen. Betty Crowley, D-Central Falls, trailing opponent Jonathon Acosta by 36 votes; and Sen. Mark McKenney, D-Warwick, currently losing a rematch against former Sen. Jeanine Calkin by 18 votes.
While House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello ran unopposed in the Democratic primary for his Cranston district, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio wound up in a competitive race against Leonardo Cioe Jr., a registered nurse. Ruggerio held a 159-vote lead over Cioe based on Tuesday’s in-person voting, winning his hometown of North Providence but losing Providence.
“I’m confident that once every ballot is counted I will prevail in this election,” Ruggerio said in a statement. “That said, I want to respect the process and will wait for every ballot to be counted. Claiming victory tonight would be disrespectful to my constituents and a disservice to the Democratic process.”
Cioe remained optimistic. “I’m telling you I’m going to win this,” he told 12 News on Tuesday night, suggesting over 1,000 ballots still need to be counted.
“We hit 4,000 doors,” Cioe said. “I’m telling you I’m still in this race and I’m still in it strong.”
Ruggerio’s No. 2, Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey of Warwick, had a lead of 176 over Democratic challenger Jennifer Rourke out of 1,596 ballots cast in person on Tuesday.
In the House, Rep. Moira Walsh of Providence was the first incumbent to admit defeat, conceding to her Democratic challenger Nathan Biah, a school principal, in House District 3. Biah had heavy support from Mattiello’s inner circle, which badly wanted to get rid of Walsh due to her ongoing criticism of House leadership.
Five other House incumbents were also in dicey territory based on Tuesday’s initial results: Rep. Chris Millea, D-Cranston, down 144 votes to challenger Brandon Potter; Rep. Dan McKiernan, D-Providence, well behind top rival David Morales in a three-way race for House District 7; Rep. Mario Mendez, D-Providence, behind by 19 votes in a rematch against former Rep. Ramon Perez; Rep. Raymond Johnston, D-Pawtucket, down by 139 votes against Leonela Felix; and Rep. Joe Serodio, D-East Providence, trailing Brianna Henries by 143 votes.
Progressives also saw signs of strength in some of the open seat races, with Michelle McGaw far ahead in House District 71 on the East Bay, Meaghan Kallman taking nearly 50% in a three-way primary to succeed Pawtucket Sen. Donna Nesselbush, and Kendra Anderson holding a 65-vote edge in the four-year primary to succeed Warwick Sen. Erin Lynch Prata.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook
Steph Machado contributed to this report.