Columns, Opinions

Simshauser ’20: A split in the Rhode for Democrats

Staff Columnist
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The past two years have been fraught for Democrats. In the aftermath of the calamitous 2016 presidential election, ideological fissures within the party have widened as progressive insurgents have found traction in recent months. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016 portended a wave of challenges to establishment candidates from the left, and many ensuing primaries at both the state and national level have pitted progressive challengers against comparatively centrist, moderate incumbents.

In Rhode Island, the upcoming Democratic gubernatorial primary captures this ideological tension. The primary, for which polls close today at 8 p.m., features incumbent Gov. Gina Raimondo, one of just six female governors currently in office, against former State Rep. Spencer Dickinson and former Secretary of State Matt Brown. Brown, who is running a campaign from the left, was seen as a rising star in 2003 when he was elected secretary of state at just 32 years old. However, his career was derailed after his 2006 Senate campaign flamed out amid accusations of money laundering. (Brown, ironically, had made transparent campaign finance a platform issue.)

His critiques of Raimondo typify those of progressive challengers; Brown’s ad campaign has fixated on portraying the sitting governor as a “Republican in disguise,” the Providence Journal reported. In the realm of policy, Brown has centered his platform around “Medicare for All”; he has pledged that on his first day in office, he would move Rhode Island to a “universal health care system,” thus “lowering average costs for people and businesses in the state.” Sanders, notably, proposed a “Medicare for All” program at the federal level, and many special elections candidates have won recent races while making the proposal a campaign issue — Brown’s embrace of the plan further affirms his progressive bona fides. There is also a political advantage here, as Sanders carried Rhode Island by approximately 11 percentage points over Hillary Clinton in the presidential primaries, the New York Times reported. In many ways, the upcoming gubernatorial primary resembles its presidential precedent — a progressive male insurgent running against a centrist, female establishment candidate.

Surely, progressive voters in Rhode Island will take issue with Raimondo’s $191 million in cuts to Medicaid — which Brown has made sure to highlight — along with her rollback of pension benefits. However, Brown’s attacks on Raimondo’s pension cuts fail to acknowledge the economic context in which they occurred. In Raimondo’s first year as treasurer in 2011, the state’s unemployment rate was hovering around 11 percent. To curb losses, Raimondo instituted reforms that shifted state employees to hybrid pension plans, which balanced the budget but exposed employees to investment risk. She also boosted the retirement age and suspended cost-of-living adjustments. Though state unemployment now hovers around 4 percent, “the Democratic left hasn’t forgiven her,” according to an opinions piece in the Wall Street Journal.

Recently, Raimondo has boosted funding for community colleges and enacted legislation mandating that employers provide paid sick leave, two policies that allign with progressive ideology. But these reforms have been undermined by her persistent courting of corporations. When Raimondo approved a $34 million grant to General Dynamics for its construction work, Brown was highly critical. In an email to the Providence Journal, Brown wrote: “Why do Rhode Island taxpayers need to give $34 million in subsidies to General Dynamics … which made $30 billion in revenue last year and paid its CEO $21 million in 2016?” Raimondo’s positions on health care, pension reform and the granting of corporate tax breaks are untenable among more liberal Democrats — at least when she’s running against Brown.

This primary, then, sits at the crossroads of the two dominant movements within the current Democratic party: the burgeoning progressive wing and the widespread success of female candidates. Some primary outcomes — Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory in New York’s District 14 comes to mind — embody both of these narratives. But across the gamut of primaries this year, there is far more reason to believe that 2018 is the year for female Democrats, not necessarily progressives. An August study published by FiveThirtyEight of Democratic primaries found that in 138 races, female candidates had a 65 percent win rate; “all else being equal, being a woman has been worth an additional 10 percentage points over being a man in the open Democratic primaries we looked at.”

By contrast, the possibility of a progressive takeover of the party from establishment Democrats has not been realized, despite what dramatic headlines may suggest. “Establishment” candidates — those that get endorsed by either the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue List or the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — have a 95 percent win rate in 2018. Isolate that to cases where a party-endorsed candidate ran against a progressive-group-endorsed candidate, and the “establishment” candidate still won 89 percent of the time. Indeed, the best predictor of success in Democratic primaries remains the support of the Democratic party itself.

At a macro level, the political atmosphere seems to augur success for Raimondo. It’s also promising that former Vice President Joe Biden endorsed her this week; of the ten candidates Biden has endorsed this cycle, every one has won his or her race. But while Brown is widely considered a long-shot, Raimondo’s campaign seems particularly worried about him. It spent $1.3 million over the summer and released a comprehensive attack ad on Brown, zeroing in on his alleged money laundering. Raimondo seems likely to stave off Brown’s primary challenge, but her support among the Democratic left will be critical in deciding the general election. Her likely opponent is Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who lost by just four points against Raimondo in 2014. The internal polling conducted by both campaigns shows Fung ahead as of late August, and his net favorability amongst Rhode Islanders sits at a sturdy plus-25 points, compared to Raimondo’s negative two.

Ultimately, Raimondo will likely win her primary, even without the support of the Democratic left. But it will be vital to consolidate her base in the general election, lest she lose the race to a Republican who would be far less palatable to every bloc of Rhode Island Democrats.

Derek Simshauser ’20 is not registered to vote in Rhode Island, but you should be! He can be reached at Please send responsesto this opinion to and other op-eds to

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