The ongoing debate in RI politics is often “how liberal can Democrats afford to be?” There’s one school of thought that says that Democrats should be fairly conservative, to win over Republican voters. Another school of thought says that Democrats should be much more liberal, that most voters support Democrats anyway, and that matching the national party’s values are what they expect.
The recent election gives us a chance to compare how people in Rhode Island vote, both when thinking nationally and when thinking locally. Events in the House Democratic caucus also let us compare factions within the House. So I plotted every RI House seat by Raimondo’s share of the 2018 two-party vote for governor over Clinton’s share of the 2016 two-party vote for president.
One thing to notice is that it’s almost a perfect 1:1 relationship; Raimondo did just about as well as Clinton did everywhere. There are a few exceptions.
First, Raimondo did better than Clinton (or Fung did worse than Trump, if that’s your preferred perspective) in Southern Rhode Island. Districts representing Charlestown, New Shoreham, Westerly, Hopkinton, Portsmouth, Tiverton, Middletown, and Newport generally saw Raimondo improve by at least 5% over Clinton (the exceptions were districts 73 and 74, but Clinton and Raimondo performed much better there than the others, so there wasn’t as much ground to gain). House District 37 (Azzinaro) saw a gain for Raimondo of over 10%.
Second, Cranston sucked for Raimondo. All of the districts where she lost ground on Clinton by more than 5% were in Cranston. The next district that posted the largest loss of ground was District 10 in Providence… which includes sections of Providence that are more closely integrated with Cranston than Providence. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone: the Mayor of Cranston did well in Cranston and places that are connected to Cranston.
What should be arresting is that the district where the Democratic governor did the worst, where she barely scratched out more than 30% of the vote, is Speaker Mattiello’s district.
To give you an idea of how much of an outlier the Speaker’s district is, to find a district that both Clinton and Raimondo lost but is represented by a Democrat, you have to look to Johnston and Districts 44 and 43 (Costantino and Fellela), where Raimondo matched Clinton’s share. Both of these districts voted 13 points higher for Raimondo than Mattiello’s district did.
But there is a dangerous mismatch here for responsive government. The Democratic Speaker of the House, the person who basically sets the policy agenda for the state, represents a district where the Democratic governor is deeply unpopular. It’s little wonder that his campaigns routinely echo national Republican Party themes and messaging.
Meanwhile, while Democrats who opposed Mattiello certainly don’t represent Republican-leaning districts, their constituents aren’t particularly more liberal than their leadership-supporting peers. Joseph Almeida represents the most Democratic district and didn’t support the Speaker; his colleague Anastasia Williams is close behind and did. The trend lines for both groups is negligibly different.
It’s not altogether clear whether there are electoral premiums or punishments for the positions of state reps; Almeida has faced tough general election challenges from Luis Vargas, a nominal independent who has worked for the state Republican Party. Meanwhile, Justine Caldwell flipped House District 30 as an unabashed progressive, even though that district seems much more narrowly Democratic.
Republicans are entering into a similar situation as that of the Democrats: a leader with constituents out-of-step with those of the rest of the caucus. Minority Leader-elect Filippi (who ousted a Democratic incumbent as an independent) represents one of the most Democratic districts in the state; he didn’t have an opponent this year. In this way, he’ll mirror his Senate counterpart Dennis Algiere, who represents a Democratic senate district but hasn’t had a Democratic challenger in a long time. Filippi’s District 36 voted 57% Clinton, 63% Raimondo; the next comparable district is District 46 (Lyle) where the Republican nominee was endorsed by left-leaning groups over the Democratic challenger. It went 52% Clinton, 53% Raimondo and Lyle won a three-way race with a plurality of 46% and a margin of just 111 votes.
Here are the seats that changed party hands, with Republican pickups in italics and Democratic pickups in regular type. Notably, neither party can learn much from this. Millea bumped off Lancia after nearly doing so in 2016 and after Lancia was implicated in using state employees for political purposes. District 72 is probably the district that is most likely to flip, having changed hands four times since its creation in 2002. Place won Rhode Island’s second most-reliable Republican district only after a sexual harassment scandal came to light. Jackson walked off with previous Minority Leader Patricia Morgan’s open seat. Caldwell flipped a Republican in blue territory, partly bolstered by local issues in East Greenwich.
That said, there is plenty of room for change. While these voting patterns aren’t destiny, they do point out opportunities for where parties and political organizations should be focusing their energy.
For Republicans, at least 11 seats should be virtually unassailable, by which I mean they voted Republican by double-digit margins in at least one of the two elections. They hold six of those seats. That means they should then be able to play in the 23 seats where margins were usually within 10 points. While even a perfect win of 33 seats wouldn’t be enough to control the House, it would be enough to cause headaches for the Democratic caucus.
Republican’s headaches remain what they’ve typically been: incumbency, poor recruitment, and poor quality. Incumbency bites both ways in Rhode Island, which is why it’s vital not to give up seats you don’t have to (both Trillo’s old seat and Morgan’s seat are Republican-leaning seats now represented by Democrats). For Republicans, the hope should be that with Morgan and Trillo now thoroughly disgraced, they can concentrate on convincing the caucus not to throw away incumbency on mad pursuits of higher office. Sometimes, it’s better if a void is left unfilled.
For progressives and rebellious Democrats, they might start looking at strong Democratic seats. 13 seats voted for the top Democratic candidate by a margin of at least 50%. Rebels hold a mere five of those – they should come for the other eight or else convince the seat holders to switch sides. A further 19 seats voted for the Democratic candidate in both elections by a margin of at least 20% but less than 50% (except for District 14 – Lima, which suffered the Cranston penalty). Rebels are better represented here with 11 and Mendez’s absence (he signed an anti-Mattiello pledge, but whether he holds to that remains to be seen). There are another eight seats that were won with a margin between 10% and 20% where rebels hold half of them, leadership holds three, and Filippi holds the last. Altogether, a perfect sweep in what could be strong Democratic districts should create a left-leaning caucus with 40 seats (a 2-vote majority in the House).
For House leadership, success means continue to do what is already working: primary rebels wherever possible, appoint leadership from all wings of the party, flip Republican seats with loyalists. The problem for leadership is that any potential revitalization of the Republican Party or the progressive faction would squeeze them from both sides. Go too liberal, there’s a potential to start losing conservative seats. Stay too conservative, and you could start seeing supporters go down to primaries.
It seems to me that leadership has opted for the latter course. We’ll see if they start making changes once the session begins. Rhode Island is one of three states that require at least a 2/3rds supermajority to pass a budget. If the rebels hold out, the Speaker will have to make a choice about whether to rely on Republican votes to pass the budget or to rely on his co-partisans. If he chooses the former, progressives will be poised to hammer his supporters in the primary in a presidential election year that may well prove even more motivating for Democratic voters than this cycle.
The question will be whether the rebels are willing to be the de facto opposition to the Speaker. It’s a daunting prospect that doesn’t come with guarantees.
What happens next is anyone’s guess.