RI Democratic gov and Providence mayor primaries: A wild wrap up

Aug 31, 2014

One of the oldest chestnuts in close political campaigns is that the candidate who has the best last week wins.

That applies to the two elections that appear to be going down to the wire: The Democratic primaries for governor and Providence mayor.

In Providence, the contest between newcomer Jorge Elorza, a former Housing Court judge, and City Council President Michael Solomon looks like a nail-biter at this point.  Solomon advantages:  more money, a track record in City Hall and what ought to be a better get-out-the-vote operation.

Elorza advantages:  Being the lone Latino in the race, a resume similar to outgoing Mayor Angel Taveras and the way the departures of two East Side-anchored candidates, first Lorne Adrain and then Brett Smiley, opened up vote opportunities  in the city's most affluent neighborhoods.

As the hours dwindle, Elorza can be expected to emphasize that he is a fresh face with few ties to the City Hall crowd. This stuff may position him well to win East Side votes. He will try to replicate the Taveras coalition, the East Side South Side combination that launched Taveras to City Hall in 2010.

Solomon will likely stick with his themes. He will focus on his tenure as council president and his strong partnership with Taveras in bailing out the sinking ship that was Providence city government after the administration of former Mayor David Ciciline. Voters for the most part appreciate the direction the capital city is moving in and Solomon will try to grab some credit for that.

The intangibles are whether the whiff of a state Ethics Commission complaint against Solomon or an Elorza campaign aide’s apparent plagiarism stick in the final days. The cliche in elections is that every vote counts. That may actually ring true in this contest this year. The winner, of course, gets to run against independent Buddy Cianci in the November general election.

The Democratic joust for governor is also fluid as the campaign heads into the last week, where there will be televised debates and the usual welter of charges and counter charges. Raimondo has the edge, but has not sealed the deal. Her problem is that a large swath of the progressive, liberal base of the party doesn’t trust her. Yet she has a powerful advantage: money. In a campaign this close, the candidate with the most resources usually pulls it out. She hasn’t made any crucial mistakes and does well in debates and  media appearances. She has been focused on likability and her jobs message resonates with some.

Taveras has been hampered by not having as much money as either Clay Pell or Raimondo. He will likely end up spending $2.5 million or so, while both Pell and Raimondo shell out $4 million or more. The mayor will probably do well enough in Providence, Pawtucket and the old textile cities of Woonsocket and Central Falls but one has to wonder how he polls in the suburbs, particularly Warwick, Cranston, Johnston, North Providence and Cumberland. The mayor is credited with having done a decent job as mayor, but he is now enmeshed in a two front war against two well-heeled opponents. This isn’t here he wanted to land this late in a quest that looked better six months ago then it does today. Yet he still is seen favorably by most voters and has some crucial labor support.

Pell has come a long way from the bumbling guy with the golden surname and star  spouse who couldn't find his car. What he has done deftly is stake out a position to the left of Taveras and depicted his campaign as that of the true believing liberal, the well-born WASp version of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. He has support of both of the state’s politically important teacher unions and the money to drive home a closing message. He has purchased an aggressive ground game of young campaign recruits.

Rhode Island governor campaigns are often about who is more like us and whether they care about average voters. None of the three serious Democratic gubernatorial contenders are like you and me. For starters, when is the last time Democrats had a choice among three Harvard graduates in a gubernatorial primary?

The huge unknown: Turnout. There has not been all that much enthusiasm so far in this  primary, but much of that can be attributed to the calendar. Crunch time happens when the Labor Day holiday is over, the kids are back to school and the undecided have to make a decision. There are probably enough undecided voters to swing either of these contests.

Hold onto your hat. This last week will be a wild ride.