For the first time in his career as a professional baseball player, Jacoby Ellsbury is no longer a member of the Boston Red Sox. While we know he has 153 million reasons and seven years to think about it, do you think there are any pangs of regret about switching loyalties? Me neither — baseball is a business and most young players see switching teams as a necessary pathway to financial success. While fans might root for a team across generations, there’s no team loyalty for the players and perhaps even less for teams that move players around like chess pieces.
While political parties may inspire loyalty from their piece of the electorate in November, the primary process is more divisive than a clubhouse squabble and can weaken even the best of candidates as they are forced to move left or move right to try and shore up the votes of party loyalists. Internal party squabbles can highlight divisions on issues and divide the time, talent and treasure of campaign activists, leaving candidates and campaign accounts drained after the September contests. Rhode Island primaries are also the latest in the country, with just eight weeks between primary day and the general election for parties to unite and candidates to put forward a message that is appealing to the more centrist November voter.
All of these scenarios are playing out today in the governor’s race. On the Republican side, Ken Block has been aggressively courting Republican party insiders, hoping that they will bring primary voters his way. As the founder, former chairman and past gubernatorial candidate of the Moderate Party, Mr. Block probably spends a lot of time trying to convince Republicans that he is the better candidate to represent the party. He and Mayor Allan Fung have both been nudged a bit to the right and are talking about gun owner’s rights — an issue that won’t crack the top ten in a general election, but may be top of mind for a more conservative Republican primary voter. The challenge for both of these candidates is to have a message that appeals to the primary voter without saying anything that makes him unelectable in November.
On the Democratic side, all three candidates — who probably have few policy disagreements among them — can be less concerned about moving too far to the left to be electable in very blue Rhode Island. However, they should be worried about the primary being so bruising that faithful Democrats or Democratic-leading independents stay home in November rather than casting a ballot for someone they don’t like personally. In our small state, we do have the opportunity to know people (or at least know people who know people) and personalities matter a lot more than they might in a huge state where seeing the candidate on TV is more likely than seeing them at the grocery store. Despite its deep blue core, Rhode Island has a history of electing Republican governors and most of the time, there is a bruising Democratic primary to thank for it.
It’s far too early for too much prognosticating, but one thing’s for sure: when the dust settles, only two of the five campaigns will continue. That means that between September and November, thousands of Rhode Island voters are going to be switching teams or deciding to stay home.
Cara Cromwell is a public affairs consultant with more than twenty years experience managing issues campaigns for corporations, non-profits, associations, coalitions and candidates on both sides of the aisle. Visit her blog, Straight Up The Middle, at http://straightupthemiddle.blogspot.com and follow her on Twitter @cmcromwell.