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GOP seeks 'Clean Slate' in R.I.

The slogan is "A New Hope, A New Beginning."

But the goal of the Republican-backed Clean Slate initiative — unseating enough Democrats to change the balance of power in the state's historically blue General Assembly — is not new.

Instead of funding individual candidates this November, the state GOP is pouring the bulk of its resources into a branding effort aimed at realizing its long-standing ambition of increasing Republican clout at the State House.

While parties often rely on partisan appeals to win votes in low-turnout midterm elections, the state GOP is banking on multi-partisanship. By supporting a "clean slate" of Moderates and independents — in addition to Republican candidates — the party hopes to capitalize on national anti-incumbent sentiment and Rhode Island's high rate of voter discontent to transform a state legislature in which the GOP currently holds a mere 10 of 113 seats.


‘One more Republican'

According to Giovanni Cicione, chair of the Rhode Island Republican Party, the 2008 election results convinced the state GOP of the need for greater statewide coordination among conservative candidates.

"We found that voters were quite often pleased with the policies of the Republicans that were campaigning for state House and Senate but would push back and say, ‘Well, what's one more Republican going to do?' " Cicione said. "When you've got a 70-year establishment supermajority for the Democrats, it's hard to convince people that electing their local Republican is going to be the best choice for them."

Republicans last commanded a majority in the General Assembly from 1957–58, and they most recently controlled both houses of the state legislature from 1939–40.

After decades of electoral disappointment, the party decided the answer to ending Democratic domination of the State House was to unite like-minded candidates behind the broad policy precepts of lowering taxes, improving education and creating jobs. Clean Slate's office platform stresses its opposition to the car tax, which it claims is a consequence of municipalities passing along the cost of the Democrat-controlled General Assembly's "self-created budget deficit."

The party's vigorous recruitment effort allowed it to field candidates in more than 80 statewide races, and it largely succeeded in recruiting contenders for all races except those that are "absolutely hopeless" for right-leaning candidates, according to Dave Talan, who is the corresponding secretary of the state Republican Party, the chair of the Providence Republican Party and a Ward 8 candidate for the City Council.

Talan disagrees with skeptics who believe a predicted Republican resurgence nationwide will fail to materialize in the Ocean State.

"Everybody's saying, ‘Yeah, that will happen in 49 states, but it will bypass Rhode Island like it always does,' " Talan said. "We don't see it that way."

Regardless of November's outcome, the state GOP is already feeling the impact of another national phenomenon — the Tea Party.

The Rhode Island Tea Party is also a part of the Clean Slate initiative, and "at least 20" Clean Slate candidates self-identify as Tea Party candidates, Cicione said. The state Tea Party is part of a number of right-leaning groups that have coalesced around the Ocean State Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank, according to Cicione.

"We can't afford to be picky," Cicione said. "We've got to bring in every warm body, and the Tea Party has brought in a lot of people that have never been excited about being Republicans or being activists."

Cicione also reached out to Mike Stenhouse, a former Red Sox player and registered independent, to be the public face of the effort.

The task of recruiting candidates was not difficult, according to Stenhouse.

"It was very easy, and in fact, we had to turn people away," Stenhouse said. In lieu of donating to specific candidates, Clean Slate has focused on public relations and has already bought advertisements on Rhode Island Public Transit Authority buses and radio spots.

 "We're not here to provide resources to candidates," Stenhouse said. "We're here to build the brand statewide through advertising, public relations and other grassroots efforts."

While Stenhouse did not predict the Republicans would capture a majority in the General Assembly this year, he said that electing 20 or 30 Clean Slate candidates who could unite with conservative Democrats would create a new right-leaning faction in the legislature.

"We can't hit a six-run home run, and it's going to take a six-run home run to take control of the General Assembly," the former outfielder said.


‘A different atmosphere'

Clean Slate's success in November will hinge on the strength of its candidates and its ability to get its message out to voters, crucial variables that remain undefined less than a month before the midterm election.

"Statewide, they're not showing a lot of strength at all," pollster and WPRI News commentator Joe Fleming said of Republicans. "They're lacking the money to get their message out."

The most well-funded Republicans — gubernatorial contender John Robitaille and 1st District congressional candidate John Loughlin — are not polling well enough to help downticket candidates, according to Fleming.

While the Republican Party has traditionally performed poorly in the Ocean State, Clean Slate's emphasis on multi-partisanship could generate "greater appeal" for the GOP, said Victor Profughi, Rhode Island College professor emeritus of political science and director of the polling firm Quest Research.

"Having the broad base should position them with a bit more strength than they would have if they were running as Republicans only," Profughi said.

Despite facing an uphill climb in a majority-Democratic state, the Clean Slate candidates are hopeful that the new initiative will boost their chances this November.

"There's a different atmosphere this time around," said Daniel Harrop, who is challenging Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, for the third time in his bid to represent the district that includes Brown.

Harrop, also the chair of the state Republican Party Finance Committee, said Clean Slate was nearing its target of raising $200,000 to promote its candidates statewide. As of Wednesday, the initiative has raised 38 percent of that goal, according to Clean Slate's website.

For Republican state senate candidate Morris Markovitz, a self-described "underdog" in his race against incumbent Rhoda Perry P'91, D-Providence, Clean Slate's appeals convinced him of the need to get involved in state politics.

"I kept getting e-mails saying that so many Democrats are running unopposed," Markovitz said. "They were begging people, ‘Please volunteer to run so that these people won't run unopposed.' "

Markovitz decided to act. "If I'm going to complain about things and criticize people, then why don't I do something about it?" he said. "So I decided to do something about it and run."

While Markovitz's last-minute entry into the race left him feeling "unprepared," he said he is now enthusiastic about the prospect of changing the culture of the General Assembly and added that he would refuse a salary if elected.

Richard Rodi — who describes himself as a "fiscally responsible independent" — is among those endorsed by Clean Slate. He views the effort as a way to restore "balance" to the General Assembly. Rodi ran unsuccessfully against Rep. David Segal, D-Providence, in the 2008 Democratic primary and is now an independent competing with Democrat Chris Blazejewski to replace Segal, whose unsuccessful bid for the 1st Congressional District Democratic nomination prohibits him from seeking reelection.

Rodi cautioned that his association with Clean
Slate does not render him beholden to the state GOP, but instead indicates his support for bringing "fairness and competition" back to the state legislature and for new solutions to the state's problems.

He said that addressing the issues confronting ordinary Rhode Islanders is "more important than Clean Slate, the Republican Party, the Democratic Party and all that put together."



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