How the Democratic Primary for RI Governor Might Be Going

The conventional wisdom in RI politics is that Dan McKee is the frontrunner to be the Democratic nominee for governor in 2022. Ted Nesi sums it up in Saturday’s Nesi’s Notes:

…a new poll pegs McKee’s approval rating on coronavirus at 60%. His fundraising has picked up now that he’s the incumbent, with his campaign expected to report about $310,000 raised during the second quarter. He’s got a durable geographic base in the Blackstone Valley. He holds orthodox Democratic Party positions, but is temperamentally a moderate. And a man who saw organized labor defect to his Republican opponent eight years ago is now in the good graces of union leaders from the Laborers’ Armand Sabitoni to NEARI’s Bob Walsh… Apart from all that, the anti-McKee vote could be split five ways if Matt Brown joins Nellie GorbeaSeth MagazinerJorge Elorza and Luis Daniel Muñoz in seeking the Democratic nomination.

And, you know, the conventional wisdom is probably not wrong. But it may be overstating its case. McKee is getting much of the attention right now large because he’s the person with the most agency to act; most of his potential opponents simply don’t have the benefits of the office of the governor. The only opponent who comes close to garnering similar attention is Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza (e.g., Dan McGowan’s most recent column). While widely viewed as the weakest of the four most prominent likely candidates for governor (made up of Elorza, Gorbea, Magaziner, McKee), the Mayor of Providence occupies what’s arguably the second-most powerful executive office in the state. It’s just an office that is very difficult to both hold and be broadly popular across the state in (if you’re about to protest, “but Cianci!” let me remind you that Cianci failed to win the governorship when he sought it).

In some ways, McKee is helped by the relative weakness of the RI governor’s office: some of the more controversial policy decisions in Rhode Island are done by the General Assembly or were the results of decisions made under the Raimondo administration. It’s thus relatively easy for McKee to deflect or avoid blame for policy outcomes, even if he did have some part to play recently. In contrast, the strong mayor system in Providence often means that the mayor is setting the agenda (or seen to be doing so), which makes it much harder for a mayor of Providence to plead innocence from policy errors, even if those errors aren’t of the mayor’s doing.

If you notice, I’ve been talking more about perceptions rather than concrete policies, and that’s because much of what’s going on right now is managing perceptions. McKee appears strong, so the press and punditry report that McKee appears strong, and thus McKee appears stronger. It’s a virtuous cycle. We have precious little data to actually confirm this, but people are saying it, and that’s enough to generate coverage at this point. Anyone doing head-to-head polling isn’t showing the results, which suggests to me that this is a pretty wide open race (if you can show data that says you have a majority among primary voters, you’d show it now to change the conversation).

The two other major players in this campaign, Gorbea and Magaziner, aren’t able to deploy their offices to the same effect that McKee and Elorza are capable of. With elections largely in the rearview mirror, and business licensing never a widely-covered subject, the Secretary of State is mostly limited to playing up her official capacity as archivist-in-chief while her campaign makes fundraising appeals. The General Treasurer is on his usual beat giving back unclaimed property (one should never underestimate the popular appeal of sending people money) and lionizing the results of the 2018 school repair bond. The recent CNBC rankings gave him a chance to discuss the RI economy.

Perceptions are also being managed by other actors. State Senator Sam Bell is clearly attempting to use his ability to garner press coverage to poison the well among progressives for at least Gorbea, and Magaziner by implying they’d be more conservative than McKee. He’s also gone so far as to attack RI’s one-time progressive standard-bearer Aaron Regunberg, which I read as a way to keep space clear for Matt Brown. That’s necessary because a number of progressive figures in RI (including Regunberg) have started openly speaking kindly of Luis Daniel Muñoz, who ran a quixotic independent campaign for governor in 2018, but has returned in 2022 to run in the Democratic primary.

Muñoz is an intriguing factor, because on paper, he’s got no business running for governor with this field. But it appears he’s heavily leaning into progressive retail politics, frequently attending protests and actions and cultural events. On social media, figures from the Future Generations PAC seem to have formed a protective boosterism cordon around him. That may be a bit of his downfall, as he’s a bit more thorny on social media than he needs to be (many of us are), attacking potential supporters if they’re even marginally critical of him. I do not think, at this point, that Muñoz is going to finish high in this primary, but he’s not going to be a nonfactor on events like in 2018.

That Brown and Muñoz are the best that can come out of the explicitly progressive wing of the RI Democratic Party and that there are no candidates from that wing who seem to be making a move for the open Secretary and Treasurer positions are telling signs of just how disorganized that faction is — presenting not a government-in-waiting but a loose collection of personal affinities and policies. Current progressive officeholders will likely make due with whoever is available to them (Bell openly suggested he’d support McKee as preferable to Elorza, Gorbea, and Magaziner, but I suspect other progressives in the General Assembly will make different choices).

All of this is to say that this is a very tough race to discern who is ahead and who is not, who is viable and who is not, and who belongs to what party faction or not. Elorza, who vociferously supports charter schools while also leading the state on reparations and universal basic income defies easy categorization (though, such heterodoxy may not be to his political benefit). And, with a crowded field, it’s hard to argue that anyone should drop out. The four current officeholders in the race, Elorza, Gorbea, Magaziner, and McKee, have all been through tough primaries and elections with formidable opponents before and won.

McKee, as the person with the most agency (and the widely-presumed frontrunner), bears special regard. So far, his fundraising numbers this year are strong, but it doesn’t exactly signal strong support that he was only able to get them up after it became clear Raimondo would depart. And in 2018, he barely clung on against Regunberg; it’s not great for a sitting Democratic statewide officeholder and long-serving former mayor to come so close to losing, and to RI’s most prominent progressive to boot. Regunberg’s example would seem to suggest that a robustly left-wing platform has deep reservoirs of support, but the candidates who could plausibly seek to draw from those reservoirs seem incredibly timid about making full-throated endorsements of left-wing policy. It’s not clear that McKee can be beaten with the timid technocratic approach preferred by so many of Rhode Island’s policymakers.

On the other hand, perhaps they’re simply waiting to see if McKee self-immolates. While his approval rating on his approach to coronavirus is good, that approach has mostly been to approve that the state is reopening – certain to engender goodwill among a populace cooped up for a year. What happens as the Delta variant spreads and the US enters a fourth wave? McKee may have to make difficult decisions to reimpose pandemic-control measures or let vulnerable people die. And the right decision there may not be the popular one. Raimondo’s COVID-19 approval rating steadily dropped throughout the pandemic, partly due to criticism from other politicians like McKee, and his opponents will similarly not feel much compunction about issuing critiques when he falls short.

That’s the perception game we’re in right now. Candidates need to project in voters’ and donors’ minds that they have a chance. It’s why they’re going to play up fundraising numbers. It’s why those who might be struggling to gain attention need to attack any who dismiss them and push media to give them a closer look. With such limited information about the shape of the race, perception is all there is. Media coverage is going to shape, but not necessarily determine, the outcome here. Candidates want that coverage to be in their favor, and so far, McKee has had the most favorable coverage. This is in large part because he is governor, he is the person with the most agency and media coverage tends to be biased towards people with agency.

It will be up to his opponents to recognize that and plan accordingly.

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