Scott MacKay Commentary: The New RI 2018 Political Landscape

Apr 27, 2018

Credit RIPR

Last week’s Rhode Island political developments among both Democrats and Republicans shook up the 2018 political campaigns. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay analyzes the new landscape.


Ten days ago, the pols and pundits thought they had this year’s Ocean State campaigns all figured out. Suddenly, everything changed.

Warwick’s Republican mayor, Scott Avedisian, left the post he has held for a generation for a state job at the public transit authority. Matt Brown, the former secretary of state, jumped into the Democratic governor primary against incumbent Gina Raimondo. And former governor and U.S. Senator Lincoln Chafee said he’ll primary Democratic U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.

These moves make the Democratic primary the premier show between now and September 12. Primaries are voter turnout contests. Here’s what we know: If past is prologue the contests will be largely fought in the Democratic vote-rich communities of Providence and the nearby suburbs, Pawtucket and the Blackstone Valley. To understand why, consider Cumberland, which cast 6,500 votes in the last Democratic gubernatorial primary. That’s far more important than Newport, where 2,700 participated.

Here’s what we don’t know: Does Avedisian’s abdication in Warwick trigger a Democratic mayoral primary? And how many Democratic lawmakers will face challenges from progressives? A big turnout primary will force candidates to build organizations across the state and spend lots of time and money courting support.

The foundation of Democratic primaries are the liberal, labor, Latino and environmental  voters. Raimondo has governed as a centrist but she must now burnish her progressive positions, such as supporting family leave legislation, raising the minimum wage and pushing gun control, to reach liberals. Polls show she runs well among women, but has work to do with men. Her support for the Burrilliville power plant could be a millstone.  A primary is both beauty and bane. She will have to spend some of the $3 million in campaign money she would rather save for the general election. Yet a primary gives her ample time to get her ground game in shape for the fall.

Brown needs to quickly reestablish himself in Rhode Island and raise enough money to push a message and keep the governor from defining him with a barrage of negative ads. The last time most voters paid attention to Brown was in 2006,  when his primary campaign for U.S.  Senate crashed. He is already staking out positions to Raimondo’s left, including power plant opposition.

Who knows what to make of Chafee? Is he serious about opening his checkbook and building an organization? When we last saw Chafee, he was a gadfly candidate for president. That effort was notable for the punch-lines he gave late-night comedians, not any support he secured. He says Bernie Sanders supporters urged him to run, but it is difficult to see the Vermont lefty coming to Rhode Island to campaign against colleague Whitehouse, whose voting record is similar to Sanders.  Chafee is dovish on foreign policy and Putin, which aren’t kitchen table issues.

Whitehouse and Chafee have a history. Their families were once close; their fathers were roommates at Yale. But these two  Ivy League blue-bloods faced each other in 2006, when Chafee was still a Republican and Whitehouse beat him in a close Senate race after voters soured on President George W. Bush. Chafee isn’t afraid to throw a punch, which could turn the contest into a blue bloodbath. Yet, Whitehouse has to be considered the favorite, given his support among Democrats. Whitehouse has solid relations with labor but some environmentalists are frosted about his wishy-washy stance on the power plant.

Nasty Democratic primaries could make the Republican nominations worth more. Rhode Island is a late primary state, meaning there is scant time to heal wounds before the general election. Republicans too, may face divisive primaries; Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan don’t like each other. In the Senate primary, Bob Flanders would likely give Whitehouse a tougher run than State Rep. Bobby Nardolillo.

The primaries will test the influence of both party establishments. Fung has solid support from the GOP hierarchy, but who knows where Trump voters land. Top Democrats will line up behind Whitehouse and Raimondo, but the energy these days is with progressives. Progressives love to note that all of the party’s establishment endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential primary—but Bernie Sanders generated more enthusiasm and won. This isn’t a year to take anything for granted.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his reporting and analysis at our “On Politics” blog at RIPR.org