In a three-way contest to represent the RI 2nd congressional district in the US House – among Republican Allan Fung, independent William Gilbert, and Democrat Seth Magaziner – polling has consistently shown a dead heat between Fung and Magaziner with considerable uncertainty as to whether Gilbert could serve as a spoiler either way.
In two candidate forums on Oct 17 and 18, Fung struggled to distance himself from the national policies of the Republican Party, essentially saying that he opposes most of what they support but nevertheless promising to help elect them to House leadership if, as is likely, Republicans become the majority party in the chamber. Whether Republicans in Congress would really try to carry out their most radical proposals if they had the power is hardly certain, especially given their track record for many years under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, threatening to repeal Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) health insurance and repeatedly failing to do it. But some of the proposals are shocking.
The Washington Post reported Oct 18, “House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said that if Republicans win control of the House that the GOP will use raising the debt limit as leverage to force spending cuts – which could include cuts to Medicare and Social Security – and limit additional funding to Ukraine.” Catherine Rampell explained this in a separate analysis accompanying the news story in The Washington Post: “Republicans have withheld their support from raising the debt limit before, usually framing their hostage-taking as a commitment to fiscal restraint. But the debt ceiling has nothing to do with new spending; rather, it’s a somewhat arbitrary statutory cap on how much the government can borrow to pay off bills that it has already incurred, through tax and spending decisions that Congress has already made. Refusing to raise the debt limit is like going to a restaurant, ordering the lobster and a $500 bottle of wine, and then declaring yourself financially responsible because you skipped out on the check.” Using the federal deficit as justification for cutting Social Security and Medicare is particularly disgraceful while Republicans in Congress argue to make permanent the Trump tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals and block renewal of the tax credit that cut child poverty in half from 2020 to 2021 before it expired.
A number of Republicans in Congress have advocated even stranger proposals. Ron Johnson, seeking re-election to a third term in the Senate from Wisconsin, wants to convert Social Security and Medicare to discretionary programs, requiring Congress to vote every year whether to fund them, thereby putting them into play as political footballs. Rick Scott, senator from Florida, similarly wants to “sunset” every federal spending program after five years and require votes to renew them, saying “If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.” An essential component of Social Security and Medicare is that people can rely on the programs to be there in future years when they need them, and eliminating that assurance would effectively destroy them.
On the one hand, Fung characterized claims that he would support cutting entitlement programs as an “outright lie from Seth,” saying “Here’s why I would not do that. You see that woman that’s sitting in the front row right there? That’s my mom. My mom, who after a 35-year career, opening and running Kong Wen restaurant, a small family business, after her and my dad came to this country as immigrants, retired. She’s on Social Security, that fixed income like millions of other mothers and fathers and grandparents across the country, I will stand up and make sure they do not cut Social Security down in Washington, DC.”
Magaziner immediately attacked Fung’s statement as hypocritical: “The Republican leadership in Washington isn’t even trying to hide it. They have said that one of their top priorities is to cut Social Security and Medicare… The head Republican of the Budget Committee, a guy named Jason Smith… said in an interview with Bloomberg two weeks ago that his top priority if the Republicans take control – his top priority, as chair of the Budget Committee – will be to cut Social Security and Medicare, and that he is willing to shut down the government in order to get his way.… So for [Fung] to say that he’s for Social Security, he’s for Medicare, but he wants to put the leadership team in Washington that has made this one of their top priorities to cut those programs, is beyond disingenuous. That’s like saying, ‘I’m gonna put the fox in charge of the hen-house, but don’t worry, I like hens, I’m pro-hen, I like it. But I’m gonna put the fox in charge, just don’t worry about it.’”
Forum panelist Ian Donnis of the Public’s Radio asked Fung, “You say you would not support a national abortion ban, but it was the Republican Party that engineered the rise of the conservative majority on the US Supreme Court that overturned Roe v. Wade. Considering that, why should women concerned about abortion restrictions vote for you?” Fung answered, “I would preserve that ability for a woman to make that important, deeply personal medical decision and reserve the ability for late-term abortions for the life of the mother, rape, or incest.” Magaziner countered, “Three years ago, many of us worked together to protect abortion rights in Rhode Island. And Allan and a lot of Republicans said, ‘Oh, you know, Roe v. Wade is never going to be overturned, you’re fear-mongering.’ Well, look what happened. We passed a law in Rhode Island three years ago to protect women in Rhode Island. Allan was against that bill, vocally. I was for it just like most Rhode Islanders. There’s a fundamental difference between us here.”
Forum panelist Juliana Lepore, news editor of The Good Five-Cent Cigar, the University of Rhode Island student newspaper, asked all of the candidates, “Should the United States continue to offer aid to Ukraine for the length of its war with Russia?” All answered in the affirmative, with Magaziner simply saying “Yes, absolutely” and Gilbert saying “I would increase it.” But Fung gave a subtly nuanced response (emphasis added): “Yes, I do support additional humanitarian aid there because the devastation you’re seeing coming out of Ukraine is unimaginable.” No one pursued this at the time, but Fung is a very intelligent trained lawyer with 20 years of experience in politics, so it is a good assumption that he chooses his words carefully: Specifically supporting humanitarian aid is diplomatic code for opposing military aid. (Motif invited the Fung campaign to clarify, but they have not responded.)
Evidence is mounting of war crimes by Russia on a scale unseen since World War II: mass graves of thousands of murdered Ukrainian civilians, Iran supplying drone bombs and troops to enable Russia to destroy the Ukraine electric grid and fuel lines, and increasingly unhinged threats from Russia to attack US space satellites if intelligence information is shared. Fung’s seemingly minor distinction in wording may turn out to be enormously significant because support for Ukraine is under attack from both the far-right and the far-left, and McCarthy is reported to plan to cut aid to Ukraine if Republicans retake the US House. Josh Hawley, Republican senator from Missouri, said in May that Ukraine aid is “not in America’s interests” and “allows Europe to freeload.” When President Biden asked Congress to approve an aid package to Ukraine in the spring, all 57 votes in the House and 11 votes in the Senate opposing it were from Republicans. The New York Times reported on Oct 27 that Russian strongman dictator Vladimir Putin is actively soliciting support from “conservative-minded people in the West,” quoting him saying “In the United States there’s a very strong part of the public who maintain traditional values, and they’re with us.” When Putin speaks of “traditional values,” this refers to his long-standing attacks against LGBTQ rights and minority non-Christian religions.
RI congressional districts are lopsided, with the 1st district overwhelmingly Democratic and most of the Republicans in the state concentrated into the 2nd district; in the 2020 presidential election, Biden beat Trump in the 1st district 63.9% – 34.6% (net 29.3 percentage points) and in the 2nd district 56.0% – 42.5% (net 13.5 percentage points).
While Fung has been leading Magaziner in telephone polls (about which we raised substantial systemic accuracy concerns), analysts still consider Magaziner the slight favorite. The non-partisan Cook Political Report as of Oct 25 gives a 4-point advantage to the Democrat, which it considers a “Democratic toss up.” FiveThirtyEight (a subsidiary of ABC News) as of Oct 26 gives Magaziner a 57% chance of winning with an expected vote of 48.8% to 47.5% for Fung (and 3.6% for Gilbert), which it also calls a “toss up.” A telephone poll conducted Oct 1 – 4 by Suffolk University in collaboration with The Boston Globe found Fung leading Magaziner 45% – 37%, but the large 13% undecided bloc means the seat is really up for grabs. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee polling arm DCCC Analytics on Oct 26 released their own poll of 812 likely voters, conducted Oct 23 – 24, showing a tie 48% Fung – 48% Magaziner with 5% undecided; the DCCC is a partisan group and their poll did not include Gilbert.
The real obstacle for Fung is that US House races have become nationalized in a highly-polarized climate where Democrats are struggling to defend their slim 221 – 214 seat majority in a “mid-term” election (that is, without a presidential contest). As of Oct 27, FiveThirtyEight ranks 219 seats either strongly, likely, or leaning Republican; 203 seats either strongly, likely, or leaning Democratic; and 13 seats a toss-up: 218 seats are needed for a majority – resulting in an 82% likelihood of Republicans winning control of the House, but leaving Democrats a respectable 18% chance.
Voters in the RI 2nd congressional district have a rare opportunity to play a major role in national politics by tipping the balance of control in the US House of Representatives. Fung is in the race of his political career, capitalizing on two decades as a known quantity and familiar name to voters, but he is forced to run against his own party to do it. Will voters take that risk? If he wins, is a moderate Republican congressman from New England an anachronism who would find it impossible to function in a hopelessly polarized environment?