Twilight for the tea party in Rhode Island GOP

Nov 8, 2013

What is the tea party’s future in Rhode Island Republican politics? RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay talks tea with the two announced GOP candidates for governor.

In April, 2010, at the height of the tea party insurgency, then-Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri addressed a boisterous rally on the south steps of the Statehouse. To 500 or  so  tea party activists, Carcieri bellowed, ``I love the tea party, I love the tea party.’’

Carcieri drew applause on that sun-washed afternoon when he pointed to the capitol, and said, ``You are the hope…you are leading something here that is a national movement.’’

Three years later, the two Republicans vying for their party’s nomination for the office Republican Carcieri once held are not out rallying the stridently anti-government Tea Party faction of the GOP. Both Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and Barrington software mogul and onetime Moderate Party member Ken Block are eyeing this movement warily.

As they should,  given the recent gubernatorial election results in Virginia and New Jersey. In New Jersey, incumbent Chris Christie won an overwhelming victory over a lackluster Democratic candidate. Christie has become a target of such national tea party darlings as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. The New Jersey governor is no liberal; he is tough on government spending, doesn’t much like unions and is against abortion rights and same-gender marriage.

Yet Christie is not anti-government. A pragmatist, he boasted during his campaign about his bi-partisan work with President Obama to speed federal money to the New Jersey coastal communities devastated by last year’s Sandy super storm. And he spoke against the federal government shutdown.

In Virginia, the tea party favorite, Republican Ken Cucccinelli, lost what arguably should have been a win over Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a flawed candidate who has never held elected office. McAuliffe is known mostly as a Bill Clinton best bud who raised millions of campaign dollars for the former president and his wife, former secretary of state and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.

McAuliffe always seemed to be pushing the ethical envelope. In the waning days of the campaign, the Washington Post broke a story about McAuliffe’s connection to Joseph Caramadre, the Rhode Island lawyer and estate planner who concocted a get-rich-quick insurance scheme that scammed insurance companies at the expense of the terminally ill.

In the heat of the campaign, McAuliffe moved to tamp down the controversy by making a charitable donation of $74,000 an amount representing the $47,000 he made on an investment of $33,000 plus the $27,000 in campaign contributions Caramadre made to McAuliffe.

Yet despite this brouhaha and other reports of sketchy business ethics, McAuliffe defeated the Republican, largely with the votes of women who exit polls showed were upset by Cuccinelli’s stridently anti-abortion and gay rights views.

The Rhode Island candidates, Block and Fung, both say they are pragmatists more concerned with making government work than shutting it down. ``I tend to be a moderate Republican,’’ says the Cranston mayor.

``I’m more a Chris Christie type of guy,’’ says Fung, who supports abortion rights. The one element Fung says he has in common with some tea party members is cutting spending and presiding over a government that lives within its means and keeps taxes as low as possible.

Fung cites his record of working with Republicans and  Democrats in city government and emphasizes that he would work in a bi-partisan manner as governor. He didn’t like the government shutdown. ``I am for limited government,’’ says Fung. Yet, he also says he sees the need for responsible government regulation and oversight.

Block says he plans to speak almost exclusively on the campaign circuit about the state’s sluggish economy and creating jobs.  ``The economic and educational issues we have in Rhode Island trump everything else,’’ he says.

Republicans, Block says, ``can’t afford to be distracted’’ from jump-starting the economy by such topics as gun control, abortion rights and gay marriage.

``I’m not going be an activist   governor on social issues,’’ says Block.  A supporter of abortion rights and gay marriage, Block applauds Rhode Island’s state senate Republicans for voting as unanimously for same-gender marriage. ``The Senate Republicans were smart to take the issue off the table. The opposition in the Senate to gay marriage actually came from Democrats.’’

Block also says he believes the universe of Ocean State Republicans who support the Tea Party is small. He says during a recent sit-down with the North Kingstown Republican Town Committee, he wasn’t asked one tea party question. ``I think Republicans here are far more concerned with the economy and building a better business climate than shutting down the government.’’

With the government shutdown, the hard core of the Tea Party appears to have overplayed its hand. Public opinion surveys show the shutdown and debt ceiling threats have tarnished the Republican brand. Most skeptics of government spending and Obamacare don’t want to crash the national and international economy and jeopardize next month’s Social Security checks.

As was the case with the left’s Occupy Wall Street movement, it looks like the tea party’s days are numbered as a force in American politics. That is good news for Rhode Island Republicans, who next year can focus on winning elections by connecting to the moderate middle, rather than shouting to the radio talk show and Tea Party fringes.

Scott MacKay's commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at the `On Politics' Blog at