This Ain’t No Party: Lessons from the primaries

As polling places closed in RI on the evening of a rainy primary election day, there was a 50-minute period of relative calm before news outlets began to report the early returns. This political hurricane’s eye provided a moment to assess the situation at hand, and after a months-long campaign season, ramped-up in intensity in the previous weeks with rallies, mailers and media spots, the ballots had finally been cast, and for candidates, their fate was now completely out of their hands.

I was at the campaign headquarters of Democratic attorney general candidate Peter Neronha, and shortly thereafter, with Republican gubernatorial candidate Patricia Morgan during this timeframe, and at those locations it became clear how much we would learn about Rhode Islanders in the coming hours.

For all of the Twitter and talk radio fodder touting the strength of her alliance, was there truly a massive coalition of hardcore Republican and Independent voters in RI large enough to drive Patricia Morgan past the more centrist, party-endorsed Cranston Mayor Allan Fung’s statewide name recognition and branding machine?

On the Democratic side, for all of the social media, events, signage and conversation surrounding Matt Brown’s gubernatorial run, as well as Representative Aaron Regunberg’s campaign to unseat the more centrist-Democrat incumbent lieutenant governor, Dan McKee, did a sizable coalition of younger, Bernie Sanders-inspired voters, anti-establishment and progressive Democrats and ‘Anybody But Gina’ unaffiliated voters actually exist statewide?

On both the Republican and Democratic sides, if the more classically right and left bases of their respective parties had successfully wooed the bulk of their party’s voters toward their ideals, each party would have the opportunity to serve as a change agent in the state.

But for all of the complaints about RI government, were voters on both sides willing to elect someone who, at the very least, was branded as an opposition candidate?

At one point, the mood turned dark at Representative Morgan’s headquarters in Warwick. Early results began to come in, and my questions were all-but-answered, with predictable results.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Giovanni Feroce conceded to Mayor Fung early on, and as results streamed onto the Board of Elections website, it soon became apparent that Morgan’s bid to become governor had ended, and that there was not, in fact, an overwhelming coalition of anti-establishment, far right Republican and conservative unaffiliated voters in the state supporting her candidacy. Even though about 180,000 Rhode Islanders voted for Donald Trump, Republican voters continued to place their faith in the more centrist Mayor Fung on the state level.

It also became obvious, quickly, that Matt Brown did not have anywhere near the base of support his campaign had announced, and that most Democratic voters decided to stand with Governor Gina Raimondo. Like the Republican gubernatorial slate, voters were largely content to rally behind the more centrist candidate, setting up a rematch of the 2014 Rhode Island gubernatorial election major party contenders.

However, in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, an entirely different picture was emerging, as incumbent Dan McKee and Aaron Regunberg were in a statistical dead heat with more than three-quarters of ballots counted.

I quickly made my way to the Regunberg camp, bouncing back and forth between his headquarters in Providence and McKee’s headquarters in Pawtucket.

Each campaign event was packed with nervous supporters, with Mr. Regunberg’s crowd of mostly dapper young folk gathered at The Wild Colony Pub on College Hill, and Mr. McKee’s crowd, including mayors from several northern RI cities, packed into La Arepa restaurant on the Pawtucket/Lincoln line. Each had the makings of a hometown get-together with old friends. North Main Street, the gateway between each location, had become the epicenter of the entire primary election.

As the evening progressed, it became clear that Mr. McKee would edge out Mr. Regunberg in a 51%-49% victory, but nonetheless, that nearly half of the Democrats who voted in the primary selected the fresh, progressive platform of Mr. Regunberg over the more centrist platform of Mr. McKee.

But didn’t Democrat voters largely reject the progressive platform in electing Governor Raimondo over Matt Brown?

Unlike the Matt Brown Campaign, Aaron Regunberg’s operation fundraised substantially, and with more influential donors. Regunberg also secured many more key endorsements, including Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Mr. Regunberg began his campaign much earlier than Mr. Brown, and with Mr. Regunberg a fixture at progressive events, student groups, union rallies and beyond, all while living, studying and serving as a representative in Rhode Island, his base of support was much more deeply established, and they organically served as campaign ambassadors.

We learned that Rhode Island Democrats are willing to listen to, and in some cases largely support, the progressive agenda. But, it requires more than just social media hype, rather, long-standing human relationships to motivate voters. Unlike Mr. Brown, Mr. Regunberg spent recent years working in the communities he sought to empower, and he was able to tap into the East Side fundraising machine he had become accustomed to through previous political engagements over the previous half-decade. As a result, Aaron Regunberg was able to communicate a more substantial message, with more frequency and clarity than any other statewide opposition candidate in either primary.

Through the election of several progressive House candidates, the nearly 25% of Democrats who voted against David Cicilline and Sheldon Whitehouse, and more than anything, the near-upset pulled off by Mr. Regunberg, we learned that there is a noteworthy, dedicated faction of progressive voters in Rhode Island.

However, we also learned that the name recognition, funding and branding of Governor Raimondo, and likely all future incumbents, would require a much more in-depth, time-consuming and expensive organizational operation than Mr. Brown constructed to deliver an upset.

Mr. Regunberg’s campaign showed that with enough time, financing connections and endorsements, progressive candidates can woo more centrist voters toward their agenda, but even so, are up against a larger number of Democrat voters who are committed to mainstream Democratic candidates. There is still work to do for progressive idealists.

In terms of Republicans’ failure to deliver an opposition candidate, the looming presence of independent gubernatorial candidate and Donald Trump State Campaign Chairman Joe Trillo has to be  taken into account before dismissing what may be a large portion of conservative voters seeking upheaval. But it is unlikely that Trillo’s following would be enough to eclipse Fung’s overwhelming base of support were they to meet in a Republican primary.

Whether it is because opposition messages aren’t being well-received or well-delivered, RI remains a moderate political climate in Trump Times. More than anything else, we learned Rhode Islanders are largely behind the status quo within their respective factions unless human-to-human relationship exists between voters, candidates and their ambassadors.

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