Spoiler Brown? Rhode Island is beset by weak candidates with a strong hold on their nominations

Brown and voters
Matt Brown (photo via Wikimedia Commons) in front of voters (photo by WyoFile: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wyofile/8170302472/in/photostream/)

In 2010, General Treasurer Frank Caprio likely had then-state Representative Joe Trillo pass a message to the GOP candidate John Robitaille: drop out, so you don’t spoil things for me against Lincoln Chafee. Just over a month later, the RI GOP chairman responded, suggesting Caprio drop out in favor of Robitaille and not act as the spoiler.

Of course, neither man dropped out, and Chafee won with 36% of the vote.

Four years later, Republicans blamed the victory of Gina Raimondo over Allan Fung on the Moderate candidate Bob Healey, claiming if he hadn’t been in the race, Fung would’ve won.

Once again, the talk of spoilers, and just who’s the spoiler, are back. Former Secretary of State Matt Brown’s entry into the gubernatorial race as an independent is being presented as a potential spoiler for Gov. Raimondo, much like Trillo’s campaign is thought (correctly, in my opinion) to act as a spoiler for Cranston Mayor and potential GOP nominee Fung.

It’s my perception that this has caused some consternation in Democratic circles. Brown is threatening to run to Raimondo’s left, and has a stature and a past electoral history that means he’s not completely irrelevant to Rhode Island politics. This weakens an already weak position that the Governor has in the race. I think the view that Brown may spoil the race and draw votes away from Raimondo is accurate.

That Governor Raimondo is a weak candidate is very likely an issue that explains why we’re seeing so many candidates join the race. With the potential for nine or ten candidates to appear on the ballot, you’re looking at raw numbers of candidates equal to 2010 or 2014; when there was no incumbent governor. And the recent Fleming & Associates poll for WPRI12/Roger Williams University showed the Governor exactly where she was four years ago. It’s remarkable that she hasn’t moved public opinion one way or another.

Beyond that, why is Raimondo a weak candidate? There’s a whole post to write about her tenure, but I think fundamentally, the fiascoes of UHIP and DCYF cut right to the core of the Raimondo sales pitch: strong administration in a state that has been poorly administered. “[T]his is about math, not politics,” is the quote she’s most famous for when pushing the pension cuts. And yet, UHIP has denied thousands their benefits; in the DCYF system children have died. It’s emblematic of an administration too focused on the fiscal bottom line, and not enough on the human interactions (and frankly, a total disregard for the value of social work).

The disasters that have been UHIP and DCYF are tailor-made for a Democrat to Raimondo’s left to challenge her in the primary and argue for a social services system that focuses on people and not dollars. But no such Democrat exists (indeed, Republicans have been attacking Raimondo on those topics, though it’s hard to see how their approach would’ve been an improvement). Let’s go through her current and potential primary challengers:

  • Spencer Dickinson: former state representative, ousted in a primary, has a mixed legislative record (by one measure, Dickinson’s votes in the legislature showed him to be a fairly conservative Democrat, equivalent to current Rep. Jared Nunes) and by some accounts was a fairly abrasive legislator. He was an opponent of House leadership.
  • Paul Roselli: Burillville Land Trust president, who seems to be in it largely due to the proposed Invenergy power plant in Burrillville.
  • Lincoln Chafee: former Republican U.S. Senator turned independent Governor turned candidate for the Democratic nomination to the presidency. Rather than face defeat in 2014, he declined to run for reelection (a headscratcher of a decision in light of the decision to run for President in 2016).

None of these Democrats are particularly attached to the party. Dickinson is an outsider, Roselli an environmentalist with no track record of electoral politics, and Chafee is a man with no mooring though perhaps represents that strongest threat of the three. None of them should be expected to triumph in a primary. There simply isn’t a Rhode Island Democrat who has both the party stature and connections to make the challenge to Raimondo. The best positioned candidate would be one of the other general officers, and they haven’t made a move (wisely).

Brown couldn’t be that Democrat either. He largely dropped off the radar of Rhode Island politics after 2006, and it’s not like he came to the fore as a vehement critic of Raimondo. He appeared in the race out of the blue. It’s not irrational for him to run as an independent though. He likely stands a much better chance; since the party has moved on without him in the intervening 12 years, and he can make a play for disaffected left wing voters, regardless of their affiliation.

It’s worth noting that Allan Fung is largely in the same boat as Raimondo. The Fleming & Associates poll also placed Fung in the same position he was in in 2014, and he also finds himself with a potential spoiler in Trillo. His opponents are likewise unlikely to defeat him, though it might threaten to be closer. State Representative Patricia Morgan is a House Minority Leader who has part of her own caucus opposing her bid, and Giovanni Feroce has had headlines of his failed business career splashed across The Journal for the last year.

The obvious candidate to challenge Fung would be Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, who has spent the last 18 years as a well-regarded mayor. Avedisian is potentially Rhode Island’s Charlie Baker-in-waiting, but if a faction of the RI GOP finds Fung to be not conservative enough, Avedisian likely stands no chance.

Both major parties are saddled with imperfect and weak nominees. But they lack the mechanisms to oust them and recruit strong ones. This isn’t an atypical thing in the world of democracies, but without a different voting system, it does mean for the third cycle in a row, there will be a candidate who is a plausible spoiler come November.

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