Frustrated with a struggling economy and politics as usual, voters in the midterm elections last Tuesday handed Republicans major gains nationwide. But in a state where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 4 to 1, Rhode Island Democrats remained dominant, preventing Republicans from winning any of the state's top federal or statewide offices for the first time in 35 years.
"Rhode Island bucks the trend across the board," said Wendy Schiller, associate professor of political science. She said the state's choice of Democrats and independents parallels results from fellow New England states Massachusetts and Connecticut, which also resisted major Republican inroads this election cycle.
While some contests showed unusually narrow margins of victory for left-leaning candidates, outcomes favored Democrats despite unprecedented efforts by the state GOP to attract support for conservative and moderate candidates.
In a four-way race that turned the conventional link between party affiliation and political ideology on its head, Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14 beat back an election night surge from Republican John Robitaille to become the state's first independent governor. Democrats won both U.S. House races and the four other statewide contests — for lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general and treasurer.
Chafee, a former Republican U.S. senator and mayor of Warwick, ran to the left of his opponents, advocating a 1 percent sales tax increase to close the state's budget shortfall and garnering support from the state's powerful teachers unions. Chafee's victory means that for the first time in 15 years, the state's top executive will not be a Republican.
Rhode Islanders elected Mayor David Cicilline '83 in the first congressional district and incumbent Jim Langevin, D-R.I., in the second. Cicilline will be one of four openly gay legislators in Congress.
The competitive race between Cicilline and Republican John Loughlin was seen as a bellwether of surging Republican strength in historically Democratic areas.
In races for the General Assembly, the state Republican-sponsored Clean Slate initiative backed a coalition of Republicans, independents and Moderates aiming to loosen the Democratic stranglehold on the General Assembly. The initiative picked up seats for eight Republicans and one independent, and helped bring Republican representation in the General Assembly from 10 to 18 seats out of 113.
Republicans have not held a majority in either house of the state legislature since 1958.
"The Republican Party in the state does not have any organization really to speak of, and in terms of party identifiers, the percentage is extremely small," said Victor Profughi, Rhode Island College professor emeritus of political science and director of the polling firm Quest Research.
Schiller also pointed to the importance of organization in party politics.
"Big gains came in competitive states where Republicans were better organized with a better message," Schiller said.
In the race for governor, Schiller said the strong showing by Republican John Robitaille was fueled by Democrat Frank Caprio's "shove it" comment. Caprio said President Obama could "shove" his endorsement after Obama declined to endorse the state treasurer out of deference to Chafee.
"The bulk of the Robitaille surge came from Caprio's comment about the president," Schiller said, adding that the comment caused moderate voters to view Robitaille as a viable choice and also pushed liberals towards Chafee.
Caprio's rebuke to the leader of his party underscored the current state treasurer's uneasy relationship with traditional Democratic interests, a tension heightened by the Caprio campaign's focus on fostering business growth and confronting the state's public employee unions to reform Rhode Island's ailing pension system.
While Democrats failed to take the governorship, their wins in congressional races demonstrate the uphill battle Republicans face in this left-leaning state.
In the contest between Cicilline and Loughlin, polling on the eve of the election showed a tight race, though Cicilline ultimately defeated Loughlin by six points.
Profughi suggested Loughlin "found himself swamped by the number of Democrats in a few major areas" and said his opposition to health-care reform and the Congressional Democratic agenda did not resonate in the Ocean State.
"He ran a campaign that would run very well almost anywhere else in the country, but not here in the Northeast," Profughi said.
A weak showing by incumbent Democrat Jim Langevin's "grossly underfunded" opponent, Republican Mark Zaccaria, is indicative of the challenges facing Republicans in the state, especially when challenging popular Democrats, Profughi said.
Though Republicans found themselves without victories in races for the state's major offices, strong showings from state Republicans indicate that voters are "more willing to consider Republican candidates," said Daniel Harrop '76 MD'79. Harrop is the chair of the state Republican finance committee and was an unsuccessful candidate for the District 3 seat in the state House of Representatives this year.
"We raised more money for Republican General Assembly candidates than we ever had," Harrop said. Though Harrop's performance against Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, was little better than when he ran against the 18-year veteran state legislator in 2002 and 2004, he said he would consider running again.
Ajello said she has never faced a competitive challenge from a Republican. Her district, which includes Brown's campus, is one of the most liberal in the state.
Ajello disagreed with the notion that voters "are going to vote for Edie Ajello's opponent as opposed to her simply so that there will be more Republicans in the Rhode Island House of Representatives." She said Clean Slate's message of defeating Democrats to restore the balance of power in the state had little traction in districts where constituents feel incumbents reflect their political beliefs.
But Democrats made an effort not to take the state's tendency to favor the party for granted this election cycle, according to Rhode Island Democratic Party chairman Edwin Pacheco.
"One of the things we really honed in on was that strength in grassroots politics for the party and for our individual candidates," Pacheco said.
Tuesday's results indicate that while state Republicans lack this grassroots strength, the political dynamic in the state could shift. But whether state Republicans can increase their influence remains to be seen, according to Schiller.
"If (Republicans) work on the ground and build off the momentum, it could change the balance of power in Rhode Island, but that requires a lot of time and effort and money, and it's unclear that they're going to devote those resources to that effort," Schiller said.