The State of RI’s Political Parties, as Divined Through Candidate Declarations

The time when candidates file for election is a good moment to take stock of Rhode Island’s democracy. Things like the number of candidates filing, where they’re concentrated, how many incumbents are running for reelection, and how many seats are going unchallenged, etc.; are all key measurements of how our democracy is doing.

In my view, the General Assembly is the primary branch of government, and control of the General Assembly gives any party or faction an incredible amount of latitude to enact policy. Thus this analysis focuses solely on the General Assembly.

In this overview of the filings, I’m just concentrating on what I think of as “partisan health”. There’s other things the declarations reveal; data about race and gender, for instance. We can assess what the median income is in a candidate’s home Census tract is. Getting those requires a bit more research, but I’m hopeful that I can do before the primary.

So this narrowly looks at partisanship. A couple of caveats: I received the certified list of candidates on June 26, and within a couple of days, two incumbents who filed had announced they weren’t going to seek reelection. The collection of signatures is also a hurdle that can sometimes stop a candidacy from continuing. This analysis is current as of the afternoon of June 29.

General Assembly Races in Three Charts

Looking at General Assembly races as a whole is a good way to quickly get a sense of what’s going on. We can gather how many seats out of the 113 (75 representatives + 38 senators) are being contested or not, and then based on past wins, predict what might be the outcome this time.

Contests Over Time

Win numbers for Democrats and Republicans in 2020 are predictions based on an average of past wins.

This chart measures all General Assembly elections since 2002, and it puts the current state of the parties in perspective. Since 2002, Democrats have never contested fewer than 105 out of 113 seats, and between 2008 and 2018, they always contested either 108 or 109 seats. On average, they win about 97 seats in the General Assembly. This year, Democrats have candidates in 107 seats. If you multiply that against their win rate, you’d end up with an expectation for 96 seats for the Democrats – a four seat loss.

Republicans have had a much greater range over the last 18 years. The Republican high watermark came in 2004, when they contested 78 seats and won 20. They came close to that again in 2010, contesting 75 seats and winning 17. On average, Republicans tend to win 15 seats in the General Assembly. This year, they’ve held steady with 2018, contesting only 46 seats. Multiplied against their win rate, and you’d expect a repeat of last year’s outcome: 13 seats in the General Assembly.

If you’re keeping track of the math, you’ve realized I’m missing four seats. And so let me add a caveat: these are baselines. If the Democrats clear 96 seats, they’re doing better than what we’d expect; if they clear 97 seats, they’re doing better than an average year. Likewise, if the Republicans manage to clear 13 seats, they’re winning more than we’d expect. If they clear more than 15 seats, they’re doing better than average.

Independents Running

One other thing to keep track of is independents running. Independents almost never win (notable exceptions being former Sen. O’Neill and Rep. Filippi, both switched the being Republicans during their time in office).

Independents are odd ducks. I’ve pointed out before that surveys routinely show that “true” independents are pretty rare, most political independents are partisans (often, more partisan than voters affiliated with parties are). But the rationale in RI is often, “someone with an ‘R’ next to their name can’t win,” so they often mask Republican numbers. Tracking how many people are willing to make the jump as independent candidates can also give us a sense of how well served people feel by the established parties.

It also gives us a sense about how well parties are performing compared to “no organization at all.” One of the purposes of political parties is to organize political action, and that means recruitment. If a political party isn’t contesting appreciably more seats than people choosing to run on their own, we should ask how much value that party is actually adding?

Finally, there are three candidates in the 2020 independent numbers to be aware of. Incumbent Rep. Jack Lyle has declined to run as a Republican and instead is running as an independent (though he plans to caucus with the Republicans if reelected), Libertarian William Hunt is making his third try in as many years for House District 68, and Green Party candidate Kevin Gilligan is running for Senate District 6.

Uncontested Generals

One final measure to keep track of is uncontested general elections. These are a real problem, especially when a seat is open. Failure to contest seats has dearly cost the Republicans, especially when an incumbent leaves the seat open (e.g., Reps. Trillo, Morgan). Looking at 2020, this year it appears that just over half the GA, or 57 seats, won’t have general election contests, the second time that’s happened since 2002. That number could easily grow after the signature deadline.

That’s not a good sign for democracy in Rhode Island. Generally, we want to see competitive elections, as elections are the best means by which to remove office holders who may no longer be effective.

We can also look at both chambers and check out at what rate incumbents are challenged in by either the opposing party or independents. I found that about 45% of Democratic incumbents have a general election, whereas about 60-67% of Republican incumbents face a general election. So Republicans will have to defend a larger proportion of a smaller number of seats, whereas Democrats have a lot more margin for error.

House incumbent general election challenges
Senate incumbent general election challenges

The House of Representatives

If you accept my opinion that the General Assembly is the primary branch of RI’s government, then the House is the more important of the two branches, by virtue of being where the budget originates, so I’ll examine it first.

In 2018, I analyzed RI House districts based on the Democratic share of the two-party vote in the 2016 US Presidential Election and 2018 Gubernatorial Election. This allowed me to create a rough index of the partisan lean of every House seat and create a scatterplot.

I’ve repeated this process, but this time, rather than use a scatterplot, I’ve mapped out the entire House by category.

Right away, you can see how polarized the state is along its geography. Democratic voters are concentrated mostly in urban areas and in coastal/island communities. Republican voters are concentrated in the more rural woodlands and western suburban areas. The sole exception to this is Warwick, which has long been a Republican stronghold (though in recent years, this seems to be weakening).

Another thing to notice is how the party leaders represent districts largely at odds with their party’s voters. House Speaker Mattiello represents District 15, one of three House districts I rated Strongly Republican. His deputy, Majority Leader Shekarchi, represents District 23, one of four districts that’s divided almost equally between Republicans and Democrats. In contrast, Minority Leader Filippi represents District 36, a Strongly Democratic district.

There’s a lot more of the map potentially in play than you might expect based on electoral history. In my view, there are 18 districts Republicans should be favored to win, all else being equal. Republicans hold only seven of these. They are at least running candidates in 15 of these districts. But that’s still leaving a few on the table (notably Districts 44, 27, and 22).

Looking further afield, of the four near evenly divided districts, Republicans hold none and are contesting only two. Of districts that are narrowly Democratic in terms of voters (districts that might be difficult to win, but are reachable), Republicans hold one district (46) and are contesting three (52, 30, and the aforementioned 46).

Note: Though Rep. Jack Lyle is an independent now, he is treated on this map as an “Incumbent GOP Running” AND as an “Independent Candidate”

You can get a sense of where the parties are and aren’t competing from the map above. Any solid color means the incumbent party isn’t being challenged there. Any district with merely white stripes means only an independent or third party challenger (in the case of 68). That’s not to discount independents, but I am being realistic about the low likelihood of an independent’s success. The sole exception is Rep. Lyle in District 46, who has a good shot at being reelected as an independent.

To me, the most notable missed chance for Democrats is the failure to take on Rep. Filippi in District 36. Other than that, Democrats control so much of the field already it’s almost impossible to seriously offer critiques. Not fielding candidates in Districts 29 and 48, while fielding one in 41 seems perhaps a little foolish; but the decentralized nature of American political parties means Democrats really didn’t have too much choice about that.

For the House, I’d keep an eye on District 15 where the Speaker faces a challenge from Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, certainly. But look next door to Districts 17 and 42, where the loss of incumbents Jacquard and Ucci may hurt Democrats.

The Senate

The Senate is sort of an odd beast. For a long time, I’ve seen it as the more liberal of the two chambers. But rationally, I can’t make a case for its existence. It’s also interesting when the rare legislator leaves the House to run for Senate, as though it’s somehow a more important office. Still, the Senate is a co-equal part of the legislature (or at least intended to be).

Geographically, the Senate is fairly similar to the House, but the larger districts mean places that might be favorable to Republicans in the House are combined with places that favor Democrats, so it’s a little harder to compete for the Republican opposition.

In terms of chamber leadership, Democrats are from further left districts than their House counterparts; Senate President Ruggerio represents a Mostly Democratic district (4), and Majority Leader McCaffrey represents one Narrowly Democratic (29). Minority Leader Algiere, though, represents a reasonably Democratic district (38) like his House counterpart Fillippi does.

Republicans actually do a bit better in the Senate; of the nine seats favorable to Republicans, they control four of them, and are running candidates in eight such seats. Of the six seats that are Near Even or Narrowly Democratic, they’re running candidates in half of those.

Looking at the contest map, you can see that the Republicans are relatively fortunate not to have a Democratic challenger for Algiere. His independent opponent may be his first general election challenger since 2006; before redistricting drew the current lines! So that’s a good race to keep an eye on, just in terms of how potentially strong or weak Algiere might be.

Another district to watch is District 9, where incumbent Sen. Satchell has decided to retire. Satchell’s defeat of Sen. Pinga in a Democratic primary in 2012 was a victory for the Democrats’ left, and Satchell managed to hold the district even as it became more Republican. Today, it’s a hair more Republican than Democrat. The district may flip this year.

Finally, if you’re feeling esoteric, you might pay attention to the Green Party’s candidate in District 6, where incumbent Senator Harold Metts faces a primary from progressive Tiara Mack. Though I’d guess his chances are slim, look at the margin of the vote for the Green Party and what precincts he does well in. Nothing may come of it, but a stronger-than-expected showing could point for a desire for a left-wing alternative to the Democrats in Providence.

I want to end by offering more caveats. I have been wrong before (many times), especially when offering predictions this far out. This is largely why I’m suggesting you watch things, as opposed to saying “District B is where I’d expect X Party to do well.”

Because Democrats hold so many seats, the September primary is probably far more influential to the future of Rhode Island than any general election will be. But I think it’s worthwhile to think a little longer-term than the primary, to think about parties as collective actors, rather than motley collections of individuals, as it can help us determine what our tactics in the primaries should be.

The other part of this is that the representatives and senators elected this year will be those drawing the lines in for 2022, so it’s important we think about how our districts look now, how the candidates elected reflect their voters, and consider what reforms we might demand for 2022.

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