Major waves could roil the Ocean State’s politics in the years to come, with Democratic Governor Gina Raimondo showing serious vulnerabilities that both Democratic and Republican opponents could capitalize on in the 2018 election.
Hillary Clinton’s performance in Rhode Island was the worst Democratic showing in the state since her husband’s 1992 presidential campaign, and Donald Trump’s was the best Republican performance in the state since George H.W. Bush in 1988. Trump even narrowly carried Kent County, which had not voted Republican on a presidential level since 1984, when Ronald Reagan was the last Republican to carry any of the state’s three counties. While it is unlikely that Rhode Island will be competitive on the presidential level in 2020, the state’s Democratic Party might face a serious intra-party feud in 2018 that could jeopardize its hold on the state’s governorship.
Democratic governor Gina Raimondo defeated Republican Allan Fung in 2014, winning with 40.7 percent of the vote. Rhode Island has a long history of third parties performing well in state elections, and the Moderate Party’s Robert Healey took 21.4 percent. Healey’s candidacy was surprising in part because his showing quadrupled the 5 percent he was expected to win. He only spent thirty-five dollars in the entire race, but a combination of his long beard, hand-painted signs, and the fact that he had been running for office in Rhode Island for decades (often under the banner of the “Cool Moose Party,” which he founded) contributed to his unexpectedly strong showing, which was far more than the 4.5 percent margin that separated Raimondo and Fung.
Raimondo’s performance in 2014 therefore leaves much to be desired for her re-election prospects. She won the Democratic primary with only 42.1 percent of the vote, and third-place finisher Clay Pell is potentially getting ready to challenge her again.
Looking to 2018, Raimondo has more to fear than a reappearance of Healey’s beard on cheap yard signs (Healey himself sadly passed away earlier this year), since she will likely be forced to fend off challenges from both her left and right.
In 2014, Raimondo received a great amount of attention for her past defiance of unions, and she campaigned on making Rhode Island more business-friendly. CNBC has consistently ranked Rhode Island as one of the worst states for business in the country, and as noted in 2014, a large part of that had to do with the regulations that its heavily Democratic legislature continued to pass. Since assuming office, Raimondo has been lauded for her efforts to improve Rhode Island’s economic outlook, especially when contrasted with Connecticut governor Dan Malloy’s disastrous record. However, Raimondo’s tenure has not been without its share of controversy. In an effort to promote Rhode Island tourism, she gave a contract worth $3.6 million to a developer described by a National Consumer Law Center lawyer as “the worst slumlord in L.A. history.”
Raimondo is known in part for her work with Wall Street, including a partnership with Rhode Island’s Goldman Sachs, which will invest $10 million in Rhode Island small businesses. This connection could attract criticism from the left, especially in a state where Bernie Sanders won the Democratic primary. Pell could pose a risk to Raimondo due to his appeal to these left-leaning voters.
Pell has been in the news as one of Rhode Island’s electors in recent weeks, and he will have the experience of having already run for governor if he decides to do so again. He conducted polling before November’s election that found Raimondo “with negatives in the 65 to 70 percent range.” Additionally, Pell’s grandfather was Clairborne Pell, the creator of Pell Grants. Rhode Island politics has been dominated by family dynasties for decades, with the governor’s seat opening in 2014 only after Lincoln Chafee (son of Senator John Chafee) decided not to run again. Pell is also married to Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan, who starred in ads for him in 2014 and probably would do so again in 2018. Pell is also not shy about digging into his own pockets. In his 2014 campaign, he spent $3.7 million, the most of any candidate per vote, at $111 for every vote received. Additionally, his 2014 campaign was heavily boosted by unions, who would potentially ally with him once again over Raimondo.
Despite the the struggles that the state Republican Party has had on the presidential level in Rhode Island for decades, several Republicans could pose a serious threat to Raimondo, Pell, or any other Democratic nominee. Fung won reelection as mayor of Cranston with almost 70 percent of the vote while Clinton was carrying the state by double digits, and he almost beat Raimondo in 2014.
Another intriguing potential Republican candidate who is looking at running in 2018 is Giovanni Feroce, the former CEO of Alex and Ani, who helped turn the company into one of the largest jewelry retailers in the country. A combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Feroce ran for lieutenant governor in the 1990s and also served in the state’s general assembly. Most recently, he bought the watch company Benrus, which he hopes to turn into a multi-billion dollar brand.
In the meantime, Raimondo has to deal with an approval rating that has been underwater for months. Her record provides an opening for Sanders supporters to assert themselves in the Democratic Party and for Republicans to pick off another New England governorship. 2018 will be a critical year for Democrats to figure out for their future.
Raimondo’s performance in the primary in a state that is as in love with Sanders as Rhode Island will be one of the earliest indicators of the strength of the more moderate wing of the party. However, with Republicans coming off their strongest performance in Rhode Island in decades, even a Raimondo win might not keep the seat in Democratic hands.
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