STORY OF THE WEEK: Allan Fung was visibly deflated when he walked into Twin Oaks last week to hug supporters and concede defeat in a campaign that many people expected him to win. Two elements made …
STORY OF THE WEEK: Allan Fung was visibly deflated when he walked into Twin Oaks last week to hug supporters and concede defeat in a campaign that many people expected him to win. Two elements made him the GOP favorite in the battle to succeed U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin, a Democrat: Voters’ anxiety about the cost of living and Fung’s largely positive reputation as the longtime former mayor of Cranston.
A Republican independent expenditure group poured millions into Rhode Island – as did a Democratic counterpart – proof positive that the race was seen as winnable. But as the votes came in, the tide turned for Democrat Seth Magaziner, even though not a single internal poll showed him winning the race, campaign manager Katie Nee Zambrano tells me. Magaziner celebrated overcoming the conventional wisdom: “We were behind in every single poll, every single pundit – every single pundit – thought we were going to lose,” he told excited supporters at The Graduate Providence hotel, – as Fung absorbed the shock of his defeat.
So what happened? Nee Zambrano said Magaziner was able to close the gap through a contrasting message emphasizing abortion rights, the threat to democracy, and the future of such entitlement programs as Social Security and Medicare. “We established the stakes in the state,” she said. Cranston was seen as a stronghold for Fung, but he edged Magaziner there by only three points. Magaziner won on mail ballots by about a three-to-one advantage, and he beat Fung by six points in Warwick.
A broader takeaway is that Rhode Island (and Massachusetts) is inhospitable terrain for Republican candidates, except in a limited number of state legislative districts. That’s due to voters’ views, stronger campaign infrastructure (including support from unions), the brand of the national GOP (as some Republicans acknowledge), and Democrats’ greater skill in using mail ballots.
While Magaziner is poised to join the minority party in the U.S. House, his win more than validates his switch from a run for governor in which he faced uncertain prospects. He will spend the next week participating in a new member orientation in D.C.; Nee Zambrano was not ready to say whether she will take a job on the incoming congressman’s staff.
Fung, meanwhile, after losing two bids for governor and now a congressional campaign, will resume his work with the Johnston law firm of Pannone Lopes Devereaux & O’Gara, as the RI GOP finds itself in a familiar place.
MCKEE’S MOMENT: After emerging as the accidental governor when Gina Raimondo left for D.C. in March 2021, Dan McKee scored a decisive win for the state’s top job this week, beating GOP rival Ashley Kalus by almost 20 points, 58% to 39%. That marks a sharp contrast from how McKee squeaked through the Democratic primary in September with just 33% of the vote – and how Helena Buonanno Foulkes, with a slightly different approach, could have been poised to move into the governor’s office.
McKee’s strong win reflects an effective approach by his campaign, led by Brexton Isaacs, which emphasized how Kalus had moved to Rhode Island only last year, after having spent time in Illinois and Florida. McKee can now claim broad support for his priorities, including his 2030 plan for charting the state’s future, and he should have at least four years to put his imprint on Rhode Island.
Kalus, however, was a long shot from the start, largely because of her limited time in the state, as well as questions about a series of past disputes. The GOP hopeful was energetic and comfortable in going on the attack against the incumbent, but Kalus’ policy initiatives failed to catalyze support. She ultimately spent almost $5 million of her own money to get less than 40% of the vote.
STATE OF THE NATION: First elected to the U.S. House in 2010, Rep. David Cicilline will find himself in a familiar place – in the minority party – when Congress convenes in January. He said he believes Democrats outperformed typical midterm expectations since, in part, Republicans haven’t offered real solutions for inflation.
“I think one, we've delivered on the key priorities of the American people,” Cicilline said during an interview on Political Roundtable. “Second reason is, I think that people are very worried about the loss of important freedoms – whether it’s right to abortion services, or marriage equality – that Republicans have become the party of taking away people's freedoms. And thirdly, I think Democrats are the party that’s supporting and protecting American democracy. And people understand that threat.”
With House Democrats set to caucus Nov. 30, Cicilline said he is unsure if Nancy Pelosi will seek to remain their leader. As to his own place in the party, the First District representative said he hopes to have a role in developing and communicating the Democratic message.
On that score, Cicilline pushed back against the suggestion that President Biden’s tepid approval even in Rhode Island (12 points underwater in one CD2 poll) is quite an indictment: “It's been a really challenging time. And when you ask people about whether, you know, they approve of the president, he gets low approval ratings. But when you ask him as compared to almost every other Republican, he prevails. So I think it's the moment we're in. I think the results of the midterm election shows that the President and the President's agenda, in fact, are making a difference in people's lives. When faced with choices of election deniers, and insurrectionists, and people who have no plan to lower costs, the American people rejected those candidates. And so this overperformance in the midterms, I think, is further evidence that the President is on the right path. And I think if the president runs again, he will be reelected. The decision or not, whether he does, is obviously his. But if you look at all that he's gotten done in the first two years, and the performance of the midterms, it's hard to argue that there's any stronger person to lead the Democratic Party.”
YOUTH VOTE: Young voters were a key factor in Democrats’ defiance of the traditional midterm shellacking. That brought to mind a 2005 Providence Phoenix story by yours truly that reported on organizing by young GOP and Democratic activists in Rhode Island. The story is studded with the names of people who’ve gone on to bigger things, including then-Brown sophomore Pratik Chougule, now an author, who contended via a ProJo op-ed at the time that a statewide corps of young conservatives could bring more partisan balance to RI.
The following excerpt is particularly noteworthy this week: “In a letter to the editor, Brown senior Seth Magaziner, now the national council chair for the College Democrats of America, responded by dismissing as unsubstantiated ‘wishful thinking’ Chougule’s assertion that the Ocean State is in the ‘early stages of a Republican revolution.’ ”
GENERAL ASSEMBLY I: State Sen. Ryan Pearson (D-Cumberland) won caucus support from his fellow Democrats this week to become majority leader in the Senate. This marks a generational change, and positions Pearson, 34 – who was first elected in 2012 – as a potential successor to Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, the 73-year-old dean of the chamber. “I am proud that today, more than ever before, this chamber truly reflects the communities we serve. It is younger and more diverse than at any point in our history, filled with new energy and fresh perspectives as we meet the many challenges of this moment,” Pearson said in a statement. “Together, driven by that energy and diversity, we accomplished great things for Rhode Island during the 2021-2022 Senate session. As we prepare for 2023 and 2024, we can again take action to transform our state for the better.”
Elsewhere in the Senate, the candidates to land Finance and Judiciary chairmanships respectively include Sens. Louis DiPalma (D-Middletown) and Dawn Euer (D-Newport), the latter of whom is seen as a prospective Attorney General candidate in 2026.
GENERAL ASSEMBLY II: Incumbents generally ruled in Rhode Island legislative elections in 2022, a sharp contrast from the gains made by the RI Political Cooperative in 2020. At the top of the hill, President Ruggerio and House Speaker Joe Shekarchi dispatched opponents. The GOP lost ground in the House, from 10 to nine of 75 seats, with progressive Democrat Megan Cotter ousting Rep. Justin Price (R-Richmond), known for being in D.C. on Jan. 6. Republicans maintained five of 38 seats in the Senate, where Democratic allies under the heading of Real RI – the registered agent for which is lawyer and former Rep. Robert Flaherty, the brother of RI Supreme Court Justice Frank Flaherty – helped Republican Anthony Phillip DeLuca II of Warwick beat Co-op co-founder Jennifer Rourke.
On the whole, the legislature continues to move in a more progressive, female direction through the election of such candidates as Cherie Cruz and Jennifer Stewart of Pawtucket, Jennifer Boylan of Barrington, and Tina Spears of Charlestown in the House; and Linda Ujifusa of Portsmouth, Pam Lauria of Barrington, and Victoria Gu of Charlestown in the Senate. Also worth noting: re-election wins by Sen. Bridget Valverde of North Kingstown, Rep. Justine Caldwell of East Greenwich, and Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson of Warwick, each of whom faced a competitive race.
TAKE OF THE WEEK: Views from various Rhode Islanders ...
Blogfather and lawyer Matt Jerzyk: “Contained in the blue wave that hit Rhode Island, maintaining Democrats’ hold on the federal delegation, all constitutional officers and super majorities in the House (65/75) and the Senate (33/38), were a number of ‘firsts’ worth noting. Dan McKee was the first governor in over 30 years to win a general election with as much as 58% of the vote. Voters elected the state’s first Asian-American legislators: Portsmouth Town Council VP Linda Ujifusa, a third-generation Japanese-American, was elected to the Senate seat covering Portsmouth and Bristol. Victoria Gu, whose parents hail from China, won the Senate seat covering Westerly, Charlestown and South Kingstown after winning a three-way general election.
“In Newport, Xaykham ‘Xay’ Khamsyvoravong, whose dad arrived as a war refugee from Laos in 1980, received the most votes in recent memory for an at-large City Council seat. Treasurer-elect James Diossa will be the first Colombian-American elected statewide. Miguel Sanchez will be the first Mexican-American City Council member in Providence, and his brother Enrique will be the second in the General Assembly, after Rep. David Morales. Providence Councilwoman Rachel Miller, if formally elected, will be the first City Council president from the LGBTQ+ community. And more than two dozen Rhode Island cities and towns voted to allow retail cannabis sales for the first time.
“Nationally, Oregon’s Tina Kotek and Massachusetts’ Maura Healey are the first lesbian governors elected in the U.S. Kathy Hochul, from New York, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, from Arkansas, are their states’ first woman elected governor. In Maryland, Wes Moore will be the state’s first Black governor. In New Hampshire, James Roesener is the first openly trans man elected to a state legislature. And Maxwell Alejandro Frost is the first Generation Z (born after 1996) candidate elected to Congress, representing Orlando and central Florida.”
RI GOP Chairwoman Sue Cienki: “Although the results are disappointing for CD2, the Republicans statewide should be proud of the infrastructure they have put into place in 2022. We had 66 candidates for General Assembly (the most ever), many who were first-time candidates, and many have committed to running again in 2024. We put together a ground game and forced the Democrats (including the Democratic Governors Association) to come in and spend money, including the speaker, who had to spend time, effort and money in his district. The Republicans have to get out their message of hope, opportunity and vision for Rhode Islanders – as opposed to the Democrats, who keep us lagging in jobs, education and opportunity. We wish the candidates who won the best of luck, but the Republicans will be watching every piece of legislation and policy put forth this year, including the never-ending state of emergency, and tolling of trucks and cars.”
FORMER NEARI Executive Director Robert A. Walsh Jr.: “First, congratulations to all those that prevailed on Tuesday, starting with Governor ‘Landslide Dan’ McKee, who did indeed have a plan, and the entire statewide Democratic ticket; condolences to those who did not win but who conceded gracefully; and a heartfelt thank you to all the hardworking candidates, campaign staff, and volunteers who keep our democracy vibrant. During this campaign, I was often reminded of a Harry S. Truman quote: ‘Given the choice between a Republican and someone who acts like a Republican, people will vote for the real Republican all the time.’ The same rule applies to Democrats.
“While Republicans such as Ashley Kalus, who spent almost $5 million to get the Republican baseline vote, had a few crossover moments by quoting Democratic stalwart Teddy Kennedy on education or Keynesian economic theory, it was Allan Fung that sprinted into the middle of the very large Democratic tent of issues during his ultimately (and predictably, to those of us who did the math in advance or read this column) unsuccessful campaign for Congress.
“Former Mayor Fung’s background story starts when he notes he was originally a Democrat. Based on Allan‘s conversion on so many issues during the campaign, and the national degradation of the Republican brand, let me sincerely suggest that his path for political redemption starts with Luke 15:11-32, and that he emulate the biblical prodigal son by returning to his Democratic roots, because in Rhode Island, real Democrats – and nice guys like Seth Magaziner – finish first. In fact, if Allan comes back to his Democratic home, I’m told Twin Oaks serves an excellent ‘fatted calf’ for the celebration.”
New boss at RI KIDS COUNT Paige Clausius-Parks: “For decades we have expected our students to learn and teachers to work in buildings many of us would be appalled to enter. For too long we allowed our school buildings to fall into disrepair while increasing the expectations of our students and demands on their teachers. But this week RI voters overwhelmingly approved a second issuing of $250 million in public obligation bonds for the construction, renovation, and rehabilitation of Rhode Island public schools, and voters in Providence approved $125 million for school construction and renovations in the city. Together we said no to subpar and yes to world-class facilities. It feels great to have good news for our kids. Our kids need to see something good – to see that we care and will put our money where our mouths are. And this time we delivered.”
Businessman and former RI Moderate/GOP governor candidate Ken Block: “Put the 2022 election in the books, at least as far as Rhode Island goes. It has been clear for many election cycles that statewide GOP candidates in RI can count on a default partisan vote of roughly 37-38%. Getting the additional 12-13% is what is really hard, and what so many GOP candidates have failed to do.
“The trick is to adopt messaging sufficient to motivate the GOP base to vote but also appeal to voters in the political middle. There are fewer and fewer issues with crossover appeal between these two groups. Combine this problem with the political headwinds brought on by national issues, and the result is what happened this week. To everyone who ran, congratulations and thank you. For those who lost, take a deep breath, sleep in, get a massage or two, and know that even in losing you have made a difference.”
OG Latino political activist Pablo Rodriguez: “Surfing is a crap-shoot, not because it is difficult to predict when or where big waves will hit, but because once you are in it, choosing the right one is the game. Seems like this week Republicans saw the weather forecast of polling and thought all they had to do was ride. There were waves this week all right, but not the ones they wanted to surf.
“If there was an underlying theme it was that polls were once again wrong. It was a red wave, but it was from the bleeding of congressional and senatorial races that should have been won, given the current approval of President Biden and the highest inflation in decades. In normal times a first-term president with a 43% approval rating and an 8% inflation should have lost 50-60 seats in Congress and lost the Senate.
“We woke up Wednesday with a much different outcome that will go down as one of the biggest mid-term surprises in modern history. What happened? Bill Clinton once said, ‘it is the economy, stupid.’ But on Tuesday, while the economy and inflation was in the mind of voters, the prospect of electing low-quality, carpetbagging, extreme candidates went out the window.
“Reproductive rights, once considered a low priority for voters, became the strong number two issue for many who otherwise would have voted red. It is very hard to fight for freedom while curtailing the rights of half of the population. You can’t yell ‘my body, my choice’ when rejecting the science of pandemic vaccinations, while advocating for the state to take control of all uteruses. Regardless of the outcome, even if Republicans end up taking control of both chambers, managing this cognitive dissonance between the mainstream and extreme branches of the GOP will be like surfing a tsunami with the wrong surfboard. There will be red.”
KICKER: Wasn’t U.S. Rep. David Cicilline taking quite a gamble by opening Clementine, his new bar on Washington Street in Providence, on the day after the midterm election, when the president’s party usually takes a beating? Cicilline told me he resolved that he could celebrate if Democrats fared well, and drown his sorrows if things went in the other direction.
Ian Donnis can be reached at email@example.com