Primaries in Rhode Island for a number of local, state and federal races took place Sept. 13. That night, incumbent Dan McKee won the Democratic nomination for governor, while Republican candidate Ashley Kalus handily defeated her opponent.
Democrat and R.I. Treasurer Seth Magaziner advanced to the general election against Republican Allan Fung in the race for Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District, while Providence mayoral candidate Brett Smiley won his party’s primary and faces no opponents in November, effectively making him the next mayor of the city.
Following the primaries, candidates and political experts at the University reflected on Tuesday’s results and the upcoming general election in November.
Wendy Schiller, professor of political science and director of the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy, had a number of takeaways from last Tuesday. The results of the five-way Democratic primary for governor surprised her, she told The Herald.
R.I. Secretary of State “Nellie Gorbea coming in third surprised me,” Schiller said. “She’s had a solid campaign organization for a long time, she’s very well known. … It appears that … more (undecided voters) swung to (former CVS executive) Helena Foulkes than Nellie Gorbea.”
Tuesday was also a rough night for women in Rhode Island politics, Schiller said. There are “no women running for secretary of state, ... or treasurer, or attorney general — it’s a step backward for women’s representation.”
Schiller added that progressive forces also did not fare well in city and state elections. “In 2022, you can see progressives were not as big a force in this election as they were four years ago,” she said.
“People have just come out of a long pandemic, and they want some stability,” Schiller continued. “They just want good government, not a lot of change.”
On the mayoral front, preferences for “good government” rather than activism helped boost the campaign of Smiley, whose victory Tuesday has almost assuredly made him the next mayor of Providence, Schiller explained.
“Smiley ran on good government, not a lot of change,” Schiller said. His more progressive opponents, Gonzalo Cuervo and Nirva LaFortune, suffered from an unfavorable political climate and a lack of clarity in their message, she added.
Businesswoman Ashley Kalus, who won the Republican primary for governor and will go on to face McKee in November, said Tuesday’s results showed differing levels of party unity on the state level.
The wide margin of victory in the Republican primary “shows that our party is united,” Kalus said. “That’s why we really only had a few (Republican) primaries. Everybody’s been working together.”
“The other big story is how fractured the Democrats are,” Kalus added. “McKee didn’t even get a third of the vote, and that story really shows the mood of their party.”
Magaziner said in a statement to The Herald that Democratic unity was strong in his race.
“We kept our message focused on the importance of keeping (the 2nd Congressional District) in Democratic control so that we can turn the page on Trumpism, protect abortion rights and fight for working people,” he said. “From the beginning, we took the fight to our Republican opponent instead of our Democratic opponents, and in doing so we demonstrated to primary voters that our campaign understands the importance of winning in November.”
David Buchta, senior lecturer in classics, served as warden of his local polling place in East Providence for this year’s primary elections. It was his first time volunteering for a primary election, though previously he served as warden for the 2020 presidential election. He said he was pleasantly surprised by the high turnout he saw this year.
“I was exhausted, but I was happily surprised at the fact that people were coming out to a primary,” Buchta said. “You’d think of this as something where it’s only the very, very politically dedicated people who would vote in an off year at the primary, so I was happy to see that people were, in fact, getting out to vote.”
Buchta’s warden responsibilities prevent him from declaring his own political affiliations. He noted that the primary results weren’t particularly surprising to him, save for how close the election for governor was and Gorbea’s third-place finish.
Despite the long, draining hours, Buchta said he feels a strong desire to keep coming back to warden duty. In 2020, he volunteered because of a sense of civic duty. He had the flexibility to help since the University canceled classes on Election Day.
“I was exhausted but also absolutely enlivened at the end of the night,” Buchta said.
“You have this democratic process whereby we can all express our voice,” he added. “I can do this (volunteer work as warden) and actually sort of help make democracy possible.”
Onward to November’s general election
Smiley’s lack of a Republican opponent in the general mayoral election — virtually guaranteeing his win — is a “huge vulnerability” for McKee, Schiller said: “McKee needs a far bigger turnout in Providence to beat Ashley Kalus.”
To win in a competitive gubernatorial election, “the Democrats have to portray Kalus as anti-labor,” Schiller said. “The only way McKee cruises in is if he goes after Kalus on what the Republican Party will do to labor rights, organization (and) bargaining rules.”
Schiller noted that abortion is unlikely to be a mobilizer in the race, as Rhode Island has already codified Roe v. Wade. Although Kalus is pro-life, she has committed to preserving the state law protecting abortion rights, according to The Boston Globe.
The congressional race is also rather competitive, Schiller said. A June poll of head-to-head contests in the CD-2 race — the only one conducted so far — showed Fung beating Magaziner 45% to 39%, with nearly 17% undecided. Magaziner is favored in FiveThirtyEight’s forecast of the race, winning in 75 out of 100 simulated election scenarios.
“Fung is such a strong candidate for CD-2 … because people know who he is,” Schiller said. “He’s run … (for) so many offices, people like him, they trust him and think he’s a Rhode Islander,” she added. “So he’s got an advantage.”
Magaziner is framing the race as a referendum on democracy and is making the case that electing Fung, a relatively moderate Republican, would embolden more far-right Republicans in Congress.
The Fung campaign did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.
As for the governor’s race, Kalus emphasized that her priorities include education, the economy and reducing corruption in an interview with The Herald.
“I will reform education and make sure we can provide a world-class education to all students no matter their zip code,” Kalus said. “The right to a quality education should be a constitutional right. We cannot trap children in failing schools.”
To strengthen Rhode Island’s economy, the state should build “a better business environment,” Kalus said. That “means reducing regulation, reducing taxes, so that we’re fostering an environment of entrepreneurship. And part of that is affordability.”
“The way we get affordability is by increasing the housing stock and using the money allocated to build housing in a responsible manner,” she added.
Kalus framed herself as a political outsider. “I’m not a career politician, I’m not an insider and I think we need a person that represents change,” she said. Meanwhile, Democrats have focused on another way in which Kalus is an outsider — the fact that she recently moved to Rhode Island.
Kalus has already attempted to paint McKee as corrupt, referencing the ongoing investigation into the current governor over the granting of a government contract.
The McKee campaign did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.
Yael is a senior staff writer covering city and state politics. She is junior, and hails from the Bay Area.