News Analysis: Was that a Rhode Island Political Revolution or Are You Just Unhappy to See Me?

In probably the most emphatic repudiation of the status quo by voters since the electoral rout that ended the reign of Democrat Party chairman and Senate majority leader Rocco A. Quattrocchi in 1983, six of the 18 General Assembly incumbents facing 2016 primary challenges, all Democrats, were defeated by insurgent newcomers. This should terrify the political leadership, especially Gov. Gina Raimondo and House speaker Rep. Nicholas Mattiello, who have cause to worry that this primary was seen by voters as a referendum on their policies.

In Rhode Island, where the Democrat Party has controlled the General Assembly without interruption since the 1930s, especially in urban districts primary challenges are often where the real action is for candidates running against the perception of machine politics. In the past, Republican candidates have benefited from voter dissatisfaction, as in the 1983 gerrymandering scandal that involved the intervention of the federal courts, after which the Republican minority achieved a high-water mark of 21 seats in the then-50 member Senate. Such Republican gains turned out not to be sustainable in the long term, with the General Assembly shifting back to what amounts to one-party control.

Conventional wisdom suggests that many voters looking for an anyone-but-the-incumbent alternative in the November general election will choose the Republican candidate, but there are at least two big problems with that reasoning. Firstly, the state Republican Party has had trouble so much as fielding candidates in many districts, leaving the Democrat incumbent unopposed on the ballot. Secondly, whatever the prospects of Donald Trump nationally, his chance of carrying Rhode Island fares somewhat worse than the proverbial snowball in hell, and the mere presence of his name at the top of the ballot as the Republican presidential nominee may prove toxic to the unfortunate candidates whose names appear under his.

Exactly how the electorate will be able to express its collective inchoate anger is therefore something of an unpredictable mystery, but yesterday’s primary looks a lot like an escape valve with pressurized steam shooting out. Raimondo and Mattiello, in particular, ignore this warning sign at their own peril. Of course, they pretty much ignored a prior warning sign, the nearly 12-point drubbing, 54.7%-43.1%, by Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the presidential preference primary in May, despite almost every elected Democrat in the state lining up behind Clinton.

In House District 5, Rep. John J. DeSimone was upset, 677-660 – a 17-vote margin – by school teacher Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, despite mail ballots running overwhelmingly in favor of the incumbent, 52-26. DeSimone held the seat for 24 years and, as majority leader, is the second-ranking member after the speaker and serves as his right-hand man. In House District 3, Rep. Thomas A. Palangio lost, 299-278 – a 21-vote margin – to waitress Moira Jayne Walsh, also overcoming a somewhat lopsided mail ballot count, 21-13, in favor of the incumbent. Assuming these results survive the nearly inevitable recounts, they will he seen as a shattering rebuke to the establishment Democrats.

Some of the upsets were not even close. In Senate District 30, Sen. William A. Walaska lost to Jeanine Calkin, 1090-1015, with mail ballots, 23-17, slightly in favor of the incumbent. In Senate Distict 2, Sen. Juan M. Pichardo lost by a substantial margin to Ana B. Quezada, 1157-1060, although surprisingly it was the mail ballots that broke decisively in favor of the challenger, 243-67. (That’s weird and deserving of scrutiny, but I don’t know what to make of it.) In House District 21, Rep. Eileen Slattery Naughton lost to Camille F. Vella-Wilkinson in a three way race, 542-469-156, with David Kruzona also in the hunt. In House District 67, Rep. Jan P. Malik was soundly thrashed by Jason Knight, 865-672.

Walsh, Ranglin-Vassell, Knight, and Calkin were all endorsed by the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats, a left-leaning organization whose goals include single-payer government health care, gun control, reinstatement of government employee pensions, and higher income taxes. With the small turnout of a primary election, it is difficult to know whether or to what extent voters have signed onto that agenda. If these candidates misinterpret anti-incumbent sentiment as clear mandates, they may be called to account in the next election cycle, but they will likely have two years to figure it out.

The take-away from yesterday’s primary, in my view, is that the electoral status quo is unsustainable. Whether the impasse will break toward Republicans on the right or insurgent Democrats on the left is impossible to predict, but it will be no surprise to see new faces running things at the State House in a few years unless the current leadership adjusts their course.

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