What Happened in Senate District 3?

The great thing about making predictions is going back to check on how things actually turned out. I made a post last week walking through the finances of each candidate and giving a “Big Question” for each candidate. In the end, I suggested that I thought former RI NOW president Hilary Levey Friedman was best positioned to win, with the RI Political Cooperative’s Geena Pham as second best.

Well, I was half-right. But, by looking at the money, I really missed on Bret Jacob and former councilor Sam Zurier, who both had the weakest fundraising (and Zurier had extremely concentrated spending, since he basically gave it all to one consultant).

So let’s talk about what happened. But with maps! Prof. Adam Myers was kind enough to share the unofficial vote counts he received from the Providence Board of Canvassers, which allowed me to make these.

First, let’s get a lay of the district through turnout:

Okay, so we can see the bulk of the turnout is really concentrated in just three precincts: 2805 (the area west of Taber Ave, north of Angell St, and south of Upton St), 2816 (the area north of Edgehill Road and west of Elmgrove Ave) and 2817 (which is sort of a mix of the Mount Hope, Summit, and Blackstone neighborhoods where they all meet). Together, these three districts combined to equal more than 55% of the district’s turnout, and all saw turnout over 730 voters (with 2817 maxing out at 777).

The next largest precinct is 2803, which is northern College Hill, with residential areas split by Hope High School, Moses Brown, and Brown University’s Erickson Athletic Complex. It also has a bunch of Brown dorms in it. 491 voters turned out there.

The two Fox Point precincts and the Blackstone precinct containing Swan Point and Butler Hospital had over 300 votes apiece, with 2809 and 2815 over 390 votes. Meanwhile, the small precincts in the western central part of the district (2802, 2804, 2806) barely had any voters, in part because a lot of their geography is dominated by non-residential uses.

So, if you’re thinking about how this played out, the reality is that much of the voting action occurred north of Angell Street. Fortunately for Zurier, that’s where his council ward was.

So let’s walk through each candidate’s turnout and see how they did.

Ray Rickman

PrecinctRickman Votes% of Total Vote

Rickman did not do well, earning less than 50 votes in each precinct except in the big northwestern ones, where he just barely came in above that. As of the 7-day report, Rickman had spent the most of his own money on the race, and by the end of the night, I don’t think anyone was really talking about him.

There’s not much to say here: Rickman didn’t have serious support anywhere, and the support he did have wasn’t even enough to impact the race: even if all his votes had flipped to Pham, she would’ve been 31 votes shy of a tie.

Hilary Levey Friedman

PrecinctFriedman Vote% of Total Vote

On paper, Friedman looked like the strongest candidate: she would’ve been the third in a line of liberal women to represent the district, she was backed by the unions, she had a fundraising advantage and had essentially been running for the previous four months.

Unfortunately, union backing probably doesn’t mean that much in a very wealthy district, much of her fundraising was from outside of the district, and she raised a lot of hackles announcing before it was even clear there was an open seat to run for. And if there was a gender-based vote, then it’s possible that she ended up splitting it with Pham.

The result is that while she had better support than Rickman, it was likewise not particularly strong anywhere, with her best return in 2805. She won one precinct, 2802, the district’s second smallest, and only by 27 votes to Zurier’s 25.

Bret Jacob

PrecinctJacob% of Total Vote

Jacob also only won one precinct, but it was a big precinct, 2816, and he won it fairly convincingly, with 63 votes more than Pham who came in at 191. In 2817, he managed to hold Zurier to just a 9-vote lead. However, he did pretty poorly east of Elmgrove Ave and south of Olney Street, and more than anything, his limited geographic reach into areas around Wards 1 and 2 kept him from achieving victory.

Geena Pham

PrecinctPham% of Total Vote

Pham had broad support across the district, but it wasn’t strong in the highest voting precincts (where she was overtaken by either Zurier or Jacob), so where she did win convincingly (Fox Point and precinct 2804), it wasn’t enough to offset those losses. In some ways, she was basically: Friedman, but better (by about 370 votes). Whether she had the same base as Friedman and they cut into each other, that’s another question. But she won the two medium voting precincts in the south, and then did okay everywhere else.

Sam Zurier

PrecinctZurier% of Total Vote

Zurier won the ward he represented and that was enough to power him to victory, because he also split the big northwest districts with Jacob and Pham. Alone among his old precincts, Zurier lost 2804, but even with the deficit he picked up there, Zurier’s margins of victory over his next nearest opponent in precincts 2803, 2805 and 2815 are equal to 115% of his total margin over Pham. So even as he had losses elsewhere in the district, Ward 2 gave him a cushion with which to sustain those losses.

To see this visually, here’s the City Council ward map for 2011-2021 for the East Side:

And here’s a set of maps Prof. Myers tweeted out shortly after the primary, with the left map showing the winner in each precinct.

Now, Zurier also won precincts 2817 and 2806, but he won the former by nine votes and the latter by one, so in a three hundred vote margin, they only accounted for three percent of it.

So What Are the Takeaways?

What value is an election if we don’t take any lessons away from it?

It helps a lot to have previously represented part of a district recently

Again, Zurier was a councilor for Ward 2 until 2019. No other candidate came into the race having had their name appear before voters in Senate District 3 within its existence, much less in the last three years. (Rickman was last in office before the Senate downsized to 38 senators, so Senate District 3 literally did not exist when he served). Having that base is just extraordinarily valuable, and if we’d all been a little more thoughtful, we might’ve argued that Zurier started as the frontrunner.

Big fundraising advantages aren’t everything

Friedman and Rickman had large fundraising advantages over their opponents, and in the end, they finished second to last and last. If anyone is thinking about a primary challenge, the fact that your opponent already has a lot of money in the bank shouldn’t scare you. Jacob, Pham, and Zurier all raised much smaller sums than their opponents and took nearly 80% of the vote between them.

The Coop is nothing to scoff at, but it’s also not a powerhouse

It seemed like, at least from social media, every single member of the Political Cooperative and their supporters turned out to help Pham. And they did a lot. My view of Pham as a candidate was low: she lacked basic knowledge of the issues facing Providence, especially issues that involved the state which she would’ve been called upon to intervene in. But, the Coop managed to elevate her to second place. If she’d been a stronger candidate, if she’d been able to talk about issues outside of the Cooperative platform, I think she would’ve won, even with the controversy that erupted over the Coop.

However, this was a special election with only a school board election in East Greenwich to distract from it. This was probably the most people the Coop could devote to assist a single General Assembly candidate, and they lost, in an election that had very strong turnout. It doesn’t bode well for their proposed 50 candidates come 2022, when their support will have to be spread much, much thinner.

There was a clear lack of progressive organization coordination

Pham announced for the Coop the day Goldin resigned, Friedman picked up union support, and the Working Families Party backed Jacob. One way to read the outcome is that the organizations within the progressive movement split, and that benefited the known quantity in the race. There’s no point in pointing fingers, all three candidates had good reasons to be in the race, but coordination between the progressive movement groups has always been difficult, and the Cooperative’s model of picking a candidate before everyone has jumped into a race is going to make such coordination a lot more difficult. There are probably going to be more results like this in 2022.

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