The surprise announcement that after 22 years of service, U.S. Congressman Jim Langevin will give up his place in Congress has set off a similarly unexpected round of candidates announcing that they may, in fact, run for Congress. By my count, the potential number of candidates now numbers 20 on the Democratic side and seven on the Republican side. These are significantly larger counts than most of the open statewide offices with a similar pool of potential candidates (as a reminder, anyone who lives in Rhode Island and is an eligible voter over the age of 25 qualifies to run for Congress, regardless of whether they reside in the district or not).
The frenzy is relatively large (but still fairly small) on the Republican side, mostly centering on state Senator Jessica de la Cruz getting in vs. whether former Cranston Mayor (and two-time gubernatorial nominee) Allan Fung will enter the race. Former state Representative Robert Lancia, Langevin’s opponent in 2020 is often mentioned in passing as well, though he has been an announced candidate since at least late March of 2021. Still, a three-way Republican contest would be rare in Rhode Island.
Over on the Democratic side, only Refugee Dream Center founder Omar Bah and former RI Democratic Party Chairman Ed Pacheco have officially announced. But there’s the prospect of General Treasurer Seth Magaziner abandoning a campaign for Governor to enter and then also the chance that the recently-departed Director of Health Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott might enter. There are also sixteen other candidates who all are worth investigating, ranging from state senators and representatives to former political aides to a union official to an assortment of lawyers.
This marks the second time in the 2022 electoral cycle that we’ve seen Democrats come out of the woodwork to test the waters for an open office, with the first time being the open lobbying for Lieutenant Governor during RI’s in-between phase following former Gov. Gina Raimondo’s nomination to U.S. Commerce Secretary. That time, I focused on why Democrats might want what is effectively a constitutionally vestigial office. This time, I want to focus on why there are so many people available to run (potentially), especially where there are virtually uncontested races elsewhere.
The Party constrains ambition
Politicians have to have some level of ego and ambition. People say they want people in office without ego, without ambition, but such politicians aren’t really effective (or really even interesting as politicians). A politician with ambition wants to get things done and a politician with ego wants to be the one to do those things. That means they’re constantly looking for ways to do things, which means talking with constituents, talking with colleagues, and generally learning about the system they’re in.
Unfortunately, politicians with ambition also want to be constantly doing bigger and better things, and in Rhode Island, there isn’t a lot of space for that. There are a lot of politicians, and there just aren’t a lot of roles for them to fulfill.
One major reason is the sheer dominance of the state’s Democratic Party. As I’ve previously pointed out, the RI Democratic Party has shunted virtually all political activity in Rhode Island under its banner. This gives the party extraordinary control over who runs, but it also means that any political discontent needs to play out under its banner as well.
A good illustration of this are the relatively quiet primaries for Secretary of State and Attorney General. Only one candidate has announced in either race; in the latter, it’s incumbent Peter Neronha, and in the former it’s state Representative Gregg Amore (Neronha at least has a Republican opponent, by my reckoning no Republican has even had their name floated for Secretary of State). In a more competitive political system, you would expect these to be prime races for ambitious politicians to jump into, as no one is contesting them.
But that’s not what happens in our very stage-managed system. Neronha and Amore appear to have the arms of the party locked tight around them and any opponent might effectively be signing their political career’s death warrant. The potential of such heavy pressure to not get in at this point is probably enough that it doesn’t even need to be implied to would-be politicians with ambition. They’re smart enough to not jump in. In part, that’s because these races were fairly predictable.
Which is why unexpected events, like a lieutenant governor becoming governor or a congressperson unexpectedly announcing their retirement creates such a rush of announcements of exploration of office that it quickly becomes overwhelming. No one has had time to lock down races or support, and get the party in line. Party figures quickly had to pivot from one figure, Speaker Joseph Shekarchi to another (Magaziner) in an attempt to lure them into the race. In Magaziner’s case, it kills two birds with one stone, pulling a well-financed competitor out of the race with Gov. Dan McKee while putting that same person in to the CD-2 race.
Unfortunately there are just too many ambitious politicians. And this gets to the second problem.
There is a very deep bench that has been waiting a long time
American politics is relatively unique in that we elect a lot of people. Separation of powers often means you find the executive, legislative, and judicial branch all separately elected. Often, we elect multiple executive offices at the state and local level. Sometimes we elect school boards, town sergeants, and prosecutors. Fortunately in RI, we don’t elect judicial branch officials or prosecutors beyond the Attorney General.
Now, you might suggest that this cuts against my argument that there isn’t any place for ambition in this state to go. There are quite a lot of places, in fact! And I think, superficially, that seems right. But when combined with RI’s extremely uncompetitive system, what happens is that politicians don’t have anything to do but wait.
Imagine a different, parliamentary system. Legislators are not only elected, they’re put in charge of running government. So a representative who wants to do things looks to secure themselves a slot as a deputy department director. They then look to move up, becoming a full department director, and then moving to running more prestigious departments until hopefully they one day become executive officer of the whole government. This whole process is facilitated by a competitive system where this legislator or their internal party rivals could be knocked out of office in any election cycle by some other party. It creates a constant churn that directs energy into the government. Certainly, you could bail and run for national office or you could stick around and potentially become governor, because almost anyone in the legislator can.
Now think about our system. A legislator gets elected in what is likely to be their first and last competitive election (either in the primary or in the general, or both if they’re extremely unfortunate). They want to accomplish something, so they get placed on a committee. Unfortunately, the chair of that committee has been in office already for four years, and will remain there for a further four to sixteen years, because the chair faces no competitive elections in their own district. Our legislator could run for statewide office, but they were elected in a presidential year following a turnover in all the statewide offices in the last election cycle, so none of those offices are likely to have a vacancy for the next six years, except for one, but everyone knows that another legislator who’s been in office for twelve years intends to run for that office and they’ve already locked up most of the support within the party and among the unions for that office. Sure, they could switch parties or run as an independent, but polarization is so strong and the party has such a dominant position that winning office in that manner is such a hurdle that it’s practically unheard of. Alternatively if they want to get things done in the executive branch, they could leave office, and wait the year required under the revolving door policy to join an administration (a risky bet).
This is the state Rhode Island finds itself in: dozens of politicians who want to do something are being generated, but the system has no way to deal with their ambitions. Elections aren’t competitive enough that it’s viable to leave the party and challenge other politicians, and the offices that are available don’t really do much.
And then you have something like Langevin making a surprise announcement.
Now the contraption breaks
A surprise vacancy initially removes all the barriers to running that normally exist in our system. All the gatekeeping typically done by the Democratic Party’s apparatchiks just hasn’t been done. Anyone is viable at the start, and it costs nothing but a few minutes with a journalist to remind people that, hey, you too are a politician with ambitions who seeks to do things. And so a flood of politicians say they are seriously considering running, their pent-up ambition released upon the state.
It also means outside party actors with their own base of support, who in more settled races might be seen as longshots, have the room to get in. One theory (I’m unfortunately unable to source, but I know it was put about publicly) is that Magaziner’s hesitance in getting is due to the announcement of Dr. Alexander-Scott’s consideration of running. Now, in a more competitive system, Dr. Alexander-Scott might’ve used the considerable political capital she built up over the pandemic to lend weight to another political party or even started her own party. Neither option would’ve been likely to effect Magaziner’s politician calculations. But in RI’s uncompetitive political system, this is basically the best place she can go if she wants to participate this cycle. That political capital, her position as a doctor with a potential to access a lot of well-heeled donors, the respect for her within many Democratic circles, and the stated desire of many Democrats to see a woman and/or a person of color as a Democratic nominee for Congress all combine to make her a potentially formidable opponent that should make anyone cautious . Some of the same dynamics are at play in Bah’s announced run.
Another such similar dynamic is detectable in Pacheco’s run. Pacheco was a party apparatchik as Chair of the Democratic Party in the early part of the last decade, and while modern party leaders seem to be searching for someone else, Pacheco was able to win the support of a number of political figures from back in the day, town committee chairs, and party operators. That sends a strong signal to party leaders that he has the support of some players within the Party, letting them know that they should consider backing him while also letting the know that even if they don’t back him, he can take part of the Party with him. This is probably not the situation today’s party leaders preferred to find themselves in.
We should expect to see more typical conditions slowly reassert themselves at some point, but for now it doesn’t seem likely that anyone will “clear the field” as seems to be the desire by the Democratic Party establishment (should he make the leap, I think Magaziner has real downsides in what may be a close election that money simply can’t paper over that a savvy primary opponent will be able to exploit). What seems more likely is that candidates will start to cultivate bases of support within party networks, depriving some would-be rivals of potential endorsers, leading to the field to narrow but not evaporate entirely. By the time June gets here, the Party will likely have picked its candidate from among the less ideal choices, but at that point, candidates will have had time to start reaching out to voters, making the Party’s choice less impactful.
The resulting primary field could easily end up as Pacheco’s old guard faction, whomever today’s party leadership gets behind, someone seeking to rally the progressive faction (or possibly two people, given how fractious that faction has been), and finally an outsider candidate or two such as Bah. Things likely won’t be so neat, but we’re only at the beginning, so broad strokes are necessary in describing the shape of things to come.
Rhode Island’s system develops a lot of people with political ambitions. That said, political acumen is a whole different matter.