Down the stretch in RI Democratic governor campaign

Aug 27, 2014

As the clock ticks in the Democratic primary election for governor, it is becoming apparent that Providence Mayor Angel Taveras is caught in a left-right pincer movement between newcomer Clay Pell and State General Treasurer Gina Raimondo.

Raimondo tacks right, Pell to the left and Taveras is stuck in the middle, which is not always a great place to be in a primary historically dominated by the liberal, progressive side of the party. The other challenge for Taveras, who has pretty clearly become the underdog, is that he is not nearly as well financed as either Pell or Raimondo.

When Pell needs more money for his televised air war and ground war campaign, he goes to his ATM. Raimondo’s career, from her early days in office and the EngageRI political action group that financed her pension overhaul, has been floated by the wealthy, both locally and nationally. Taveras just doesn't have those connections; he was raised by a single mother in poverty.

With about two weeks remaining, the race is still fluid, but Raimondo has the edge because Taveras and Pell are splitting the progressive vote. This race is in sharp contrast to the last competitive campaign in a Democratic gubernatorial primary. That was in 2002, when former State Sen. Myrth York eked out a win over then-Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse  and Pawtucket State Rep. Antonio Pires.

York captured the liberal base and got about 39 percent, defeating Whitehouse by less than 1,000 votes. York’s problem was unifying the party after the primary.  Pires sulked and basically walked away, refusing to endorse York. Whitehouse went into a deep funk after his loss and offered only lukewarm support to York. The result: the fractious Democrats helped elect Republican Don Carcieri that November.

York was the only woman in that primary, a factor which will likely help Raimondo this time around, even though the labor unions with the most female members, including teachers and public employees, don’t much trust her.

A structural problem in Rhode Island politics, particularly among Democrats, is that contentious primaries in September means that party unity must be forged in just a few weeks before the November general election. (Massachusetts has a similar system). This is one reason that Democrats have not elected a governor since Bruce Sundlun’s second term in 1992.

That may not be so big a problem this time around; all three Democrats are on record (again at last night’s WPRI-ProJo debate) as stating they will support the party nominee in November.

One element to watch as the days dwindle is the get-out-the- vote operations of the three campaigns. Pell, a political neophyte who has never been elected to anything, has purchased a GOTV turn-out campaign filled with young activists. Some of these folks couldn’t get from Providence to Westerly without a GPS, but what they lack in local knowledge they may make up in the enthusiasm of the young and committed.

Raimondo also has the money to finance what she needs, including the mountain of direct mail that has been filling voter mail boxes in the last few weeks.  She  does not need  to expand the voter base as much as either Taveras or Pell, especially if they continue to split the progressives.

Taveras doesn’t have the resources of the others, but he should benefit from a strong turnout in his home city of Providence, where a competitive Democratic mayoral primary will fuel voter participation. He would be the state’s first Latino governor, which also should help him.

Taveras must convince the left, activist side of the Democratic Party that Pell is unelectable in a general election against a Republican, and that Raimondo isn't a progressive. That’s why he has hammered Pell’s  lack of experience. (Pell’s retort was to get Washington, D.C. Obama Administration notables, to stick up for him. The biggest name was Thomas Donilon, the former national security adviser, a very close friend since boyhood of Pell media consultant Tad Devine).

Pell has come a long way since he jumped into the campaign. He has made voters forget about the lost car, hasn’t used negative ads and the television spots made by Devine have been arguably the campaign’s best. Yet there are still those who say that if his name was Clay Jones and he was married to Michelle Jones, and he wasn’t wealthy, his candidacy would be,  in the famous 1962 words of Eddie McCormack against Ted Kennedy, a joke.

Raimondo is never going to get to 50 percent or better in a Democratic primary. She doesn’t have to. Her campaign has been well run and she has evolved into a better debater, as was clear Tuesday night.

Money isn’t everything in politics, but it’s a lot of things. The latest ProJo-WPRI poll put her at about 32 percent, which isn’t that great considering   it cost her campaign $3.5 million or more to get  there.

And if she exaggerates her private sector job creation and sometimes speaks in the sepia tones of nostalgia about bringing back manufacturing jobs, well, that’s politics. And if Taveras doesn’t have the money to question her claims and Pell sticks with his no negatives pledge, she is likely to get away with it.