Despite its liberal reputation, Rhode Island has picked a Republican governor in seven of the last nine election cycles. One Republican whose name won't be on the ballot — term-limited Gov. Donald Carcieri '65 — will leave his successor the top job in a state saddled with double-digit unemployment, a $400 million budget shortfall and ballooning entitlement spending.
The frontrunners in the race are both familiar faces to Rhode Island voters. Independent Lincoln Chafee '75 was mayor of Warwick and spent seven years as a U.S. senator from Rhode Island before losing a 2006 reelection campaign to Sheldon Whitehouse. Chafee officially became an independent in 2007 while serving as a visiting fellow at Brown's Watson Institute for International Studies.
The other top contender, Democrat Frank Caprio, has served as state treasurer since 2006, a position that garnered him the high-profile role of shepherding the state's finances through the 2008 financial crisis.
Caprio's bid for the Democratic nomination took a fortuitous turn when state Attorney General Patrick Lynch '87 withdrew from the race on July 15. Lynch's exit clears the way for Caprio to assume the party's mantle unopposed and allows him to mobilize the support of party bigwigs like former President Bill Clinton, who will headline a rally for Caprio on Thursday.
"Too often in election cycles, Rhode Islanders have gotten the wrong leadership because of divisive, costly primary battles," Lynch said in a video about his decision to leave the race and endorse Caprio.
Lynch's campaign foundered in the face of lagging fundraising, the loss of the state Democratic establishment's endorsement to Caprio and disappointing poll numbers, including a Rasmussen poll that showed him trailing Chafee as well as Republican candidates John Robitaille and Victor Moffitt. In contrast, Caprio ran neck and neck with Chafee in a similar hypothetical matchup and finishing well ahead of both Republicans.
A Rasmussen poll last week showed Chafee with a 3 or 7 percent lead over Caprio, depending on the hypothetical candidate. Both Republican candidates finished behind the two in hypothetical scenarios.
With Republicans fielding record numbers of candidates for statewide office this year, a strong showing by the party's gubernatorial candidate could provide a boost further "down ballot," Associate Professor of Political Science Wendy Schiller wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.
Robitaille, a former adviser for Carcieri, will face Moffitt, an accountant and former state representative, in a September primary.
Moderate Party candidate Ken Block — who founded the Rhode Island third party and has already spent $350,000 of his own money on the race — could be a spoiler for Chafee in the contest for unaffiliated voters, Schiller wrote.
With a crowded field of candidates from across the political spectrum, the race will come down to "a fight for the middle," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the Cook Political Report.
In addition to Chafee, other independents running for governor in historically blue states — like Tim Cahill of Massachusetts and Elliot Cutler of Maine — could capitalize on voter dissatisfaction with two-party partisanship, Duffy said. A bid as an independent, however, is usually launched by incumbents who can demonstrate their governing credentials during the campaign and places additional emphasis on the candidate's public persona, "which has not been strong in the past" for Chafee, according to Schiller.
Chafee's gamble is whether he can build on name recognition as the heir to his family's political brand — one that fielded three past Republican governors, including his father, John — while carving out a separate identity as a pragmatic, post-partisan thinker who can enact the difficult solutions needed to solve the state's problems.
"Candidates still really shy away from ‘Elect me, and the first thing I'm going to do is raise taxes,' " Duffy said.
But Chafee's economic plan advocates almost that. In tandem with spending cuts, he has suggested an expansion of the state's sales tax that would nominally increase the cost of food, clothing and, as his opponents at the Democratic Governors Association are quick to point out, equipment allowing amputee veterans to drive. Chafee said this measure would raise roughly $90 million for the state.
Defying the "tax and spend" label that has plagued many in his party, Chafee's Democratic opponent is running on a small-business platform that champions fiscal responsibility.
Caprio has vowed to "hold the line against tax increases" and is proposing lowering the tax burden on small businesses and taking measures to increase their access to capital, said Caprio spokesman Nick Hemond.
Hemond pointed to Caprio's stewardship of the state Treasury budget, which allowed the department to cut costs by an average rate of 10 percent annually, as proof of his commitment to combating wasteful spending.
The struggling economy has also taken center stage for Republicans, who argue that the current climate makes conservative arguments for smaller government and lower taxes especially compelling.
"When you talk to people, they don't want to talk about whether you're pro-choice," said Robitaille campaign spokesman Michael Napolitano. "What they're concerned about is whether they have a job."