The most fascinating story not yet told in the 2014 elections isn’t the issue of whether or not Healey spoiled Fung’s chances or how the Democrats swept all the statewide races for the first time since 1960. It was that the Republicans gained seats in the RI House of Representatives despite earning their fewest votes since the 75-member House was created. Now, this is partly because the 2014 elections likely had the lowest turnout since 1942 (and the lowest turnout in Rhode Island since the House was downsized). But for Democrats, it was only their third worst showing in House races in the last seven elections. Here’s the graph:
Since 2008, Republicans have gotten fewer and fewer votes in each election, regardless of whether it was a presidential election or not. Democrats are more sensitive to national trends, and so we see the massive uptick in Democratic votes in 2006 when Chafee’s seat was up for grabs, and the massive collapse in 2010 when Democrats were depressed. But 2010 and 2014 show that there’s no noticeable Republican gain for Republicans generally when the Democratic vote collapses.
Which is why I continue to believe the fundamental law of Rhode Island politics is this: Republicans win when Democrats don’t vote.
Let’s pause for a moment though. I don’t think the falling number of Republican votes is likely to continue. I expect that Rhode Island Republicans will be energized slightly by the 2016 presidential elections (just like in 2004) and that they hit bottom in 2014.
Okay, so over the last 12 years, Republicans have only ever won in 19 House districts (their all-time high is a 15-member caucus following the 2004 elections). While I may eventually look at all of these districts over the years, I really want to drill down on the five gains. How did Republicans manage to gain with their votes so precipitously low? It appears to be about half a failure of Democrats to turnout and about half issues with the specific candidate.
District 16: P. Palumbo (Incumbent) vs. R. Lancia
Palumbo, first elected in 1994, became the sweaty face of Rhode Island corruption when the shenanigans around Rhode Island beach stand concession contracts were revealed by WJAR.
In elections where he faced opponents, Palumbo’s support has consistently declined since 2002, regardless of turnout in the state. However in 2014, with the low Democratic turnout and the concession stand scandal, he was beatable, and more voters turned out to put him out of office in 2014 than any had since 2008. The district actually saw an increased turnout compared to previous election, a presidential election year. Palumbo was definitely the problem here.
That said, the district has been solidly Democratic since its creation, and it’s likely to continue being so. Democrats could easily put it back in play in 2016.
District 28: S. Guthrie (Incumbent) vs. R. Nardolillo
Scott Guthrie was first elected to the House in 2008, a wave year for Democrats. Guthrie had been the Democratic candidate in District 28 in every election except for 2006. He won in 2008 after Victor Moffitt (the incumbent since 2002) left the seat open.
District 28 could always be considered a close district, up until Guthrie took it over. Against Moffitt, Democratic candidates always kept the margin within a few hundred votes. In 2008 and 2012, Guthrie clobbered his Republican opponents. He had a narrower margin in 2010, but 2014 is the real outlier hear. Even with the issues around the Central Coventry Fire District (which continue to get worse), the Democratic vote in District 28 disappeared. The difference between the Democratic votes in 2010 and 2014 is a difference of nearly 1200; not enough to win it for Guthrie, but enough to keep it closer. And while Nardolillo had a good solid winning number, the 2008 Republicans candidate won a larger number of voters and still loss.
This district should be back in play in a presidential election year, but with an incumbent in charge, it may merely be a narrow Republican victory. There’s still a route for Guthrie to return.
District 29: L. Tomasso (Incumbent) vs. S. Roberts
This seat might have been a Republican target, but it should not have been. Since its formation it has been a staunchly Democratic seat, and 2014 marks the first time a Republican has held it. Prior to Tomasso, this was Ray Sullivan’s seat starting in 2005. Tomasso’s first election, in 2010, was a narrow one, with a margin of just eight votes!
The 2014 race was close, but not nearly as close as in 2010. Tomasso to Roberts lost by 247 votes. But Roberts vote total was similar to that of previous Republican candidates in 2012, 2010 and 2004. While this was another defeat attributed to the fiasco in the Central Coventry Fire District, what may have sealed defeat for Tomasso here was the 107 fewer voters from 2010 to 2014.
That said, this in a winnable district for Democratic candidates, and it should still be a priority for pickup in 2016. The danger is if it becomes a district that switches between Republican and Democratic depending on whether it’s a presidential year or a midterm election.
District 39: L. Valencia (Incumbent) vs. Justin Price
District 39 is an odd district. Encompassing the whole of Exeter, the post-2010 Census redistricting removed all of its Charlestown voters and replaced them with Hopkinton ones. For three election cycles from its creation, it was the domain of Republican Joseph Scott. Then in 2008, with Scott vacating the seat, Democrat Rod Driver took over, and in the following election Democrat Larry Valencia won it after Driver vacated it.
House District 39 seems to indicate to me the importance of not ceding open seats to the opposing party’s candidate. Democrats have gotten a lot better at not doing that since 2002.
The question is whether Republicans retain the seat in 2016. And Valencia did get slammed here, but he also suffered from the lowest turnout of voters ever in the district’s history of competitive elections. His winning margin in 2012 was also the biggest margin of victory in the history of the district’s competitive elections.
District 39 is in play for future elections, and if Price runs again in 2016, he could seem himself defeated by the Democratic nominee, which possibly could be Valencia again.
District 72: L. Finn (Incumbent) vs. D. Reilly (Former Incumbent)
District 72 is perhaps the closest to a pure swing district among these five districts. Linda Finn (D) picked it up from Dan Reilly (R) in 2012. Reilly beat incumbent Amy Rice (D) in 2010 after losing to her in 2008. In 2006 Rice fended off John Robitaille (R) with a margin of 10 votes. Rice defeated incumbent Christine Callahan (R) to take the district. Callahan had triumphed over John Maher (D) in 2002. And now Reilly holds the district again.
Without a doubt, Reilly has been the recipient of having an advantageously small electorate in the two elections he’s won. Go back to my Fundamental Rule here: Republicans win when Democrats don’t vote. District 72 is a place where low turnouts mean fewer Democratic voters, and Republican wins. In the graph above, any turnout below 6000 votes means a Republican victory. Any turnout above 6500 votes means a Democratic victory (it’s probably even higher than that). Anything in 6000-6500 range is a toss-up election.
If turnout in 2016 follows usual patterns, District 72 should revert back to the Democratic column and Reilly should be defeated if he contests it again.
So what have we learned from these district results? First, Republicans have a perverse incentive to limit turnout in Rhode Island. Democrats, meanwhile, need to figure out how to energize their voters to turnout even when it’s not a presidential year. However, I don’t think Rhode Island Democrats have an incentive to do this; Republicans have never won enough seats to even hold a quarter of seats in the House, much less break the all-important 2/3rds majority. In fact, Republicans only ran 23 candidates for the House in 2014. Republicans simply aren’t a big enough of a threat for Democrats to care to maximize the number of districts they can win. And with Republicans supporting the Speaker, they aren’t even functioning as an opposition party, but as a more organized faction of the Democratic Party.
And unless the Republicans can figure out a way to appeal to voters in presidential election years, they should never expect to be more than that. That’s the problem with Rhode Island’s democracy. Under the way the House districts are arranged, and with our plurality voting system, Republicans aren’t even winning seats proportional to the votes they’re getting. For instance, here’s the portion of votes parties won across all House districts:
And here’s the portion of seats the parties will control: