RI Republicans Are Taking a Gamble on Their Brand and Their Luck

Let’s not kid ourselves: Ashley Kalus is not the ideal candidate for the Republican nomination for governor of Rhode Island. She has had no impact on state politics, she voted in Florida in the last election, and she only registered to vote in RI less than three months ago. She will have less than nine months to raise funds while literally all of the announced Democratic candidates have basically been fundraising for this since November 7, 2018 (well, Muñoz hasn’t really been fundraising, but he has had the ability to).

Unless Cranston Mayor Ken Hopkins actually decides to take advantage of his ability to run for governor without losing his mayorship, she is probably the best the RIGOP is going to get (Providence resident Rey Herrera is also running, and former Cranston Mayor turned Colorado rancher Steve Laffey has also been mentioned since 2019).

This election feels like it could potentially be favorable to RI Republicans. In midterms, the party of the president typically suffers from demotivated voters and motivated opponents as turnout becomes important. Indeed, a TargetSmart analysis of turnout in the GOP win in Virginia and narrow defeat in New Jersey in 2021 showed a “silver surge” of older voters with a precipitous decline in young voters. There’s no good reason to suspect similar dynamics won’t occur here in Rhode Island. Along with that, an unelected incumbent reeling from an FBI investigation and a significant set of vacancies in executive-level positions seems like the sort of thing the right Republican candidate for governor could take advantage of.

Kalus is certainly new, but I do not know that she is that candidate. One way is to look at the paths they see for themselves. As Ted Nesi puts in his weekly roundup:

She and her campaign advisers see a path: a nasty Democratic primary ends with a weakened nominee, leaving Kalus as a fresh face for voters to turn to as they make their final decision in the fall.

This is a bad campaign strategy. It is too reliant on factors beyond her campaign’s control. First, there is no guarantee that the Democratic primary gets particularly nasty (or that, in this age of hyperpartisanship, that’s enough to actually damage the nominee). Second, should it get nasty enough to actually harm the nominee, that Kalus is the sole alternative. This is the sort of thinking that doomed Allan Fung in 2014; “there is no alternative” does not always turn out to be true, especially if your opponent is unpopular.

Furthermore, Kalus is going to have to spend much of her time just introducing herself to even Republican voters, whereas by the time of the primary, a lot of the electorate is likely to have been have had multiple passes by multiple Democratic gubernatorial campaigns. Media coverage will largely be dominated by the maneuverings of the Democratic candidates. Unless media outlets are particularly biased in her favor by inviting her to attend debates with the Democratic primary candidates and preventing independents from also getting on stage, she effectively just has eight weeks to introduce herself to the general electorate and win their support.

Now, that is not to say it is impossible. After all, strange things happen with some frequency in Rhode Island politics. For instance, Ian Donnis brings up the 2010 election in his weekly news roundup:

it’s worth remembering how Republican John Robitaille – hardly a brand name in Rhode Island politics – came *very* close to winning the race for governor in 2010. The global stage is marked by heightened uncertainty right now, and who knows what things will change between now and Rhode Island’s September 13 primary?

But 2010 was a deeply weird election, and there are a number of things to keep in mind. First, there were four candidates who achieved over 5% of the vote in that election. Second, the Democratic nominee, Frank Caprio, made national news after he went on WPRO and insulted President Obama for declining to endorse him. According to Gallup, Obama then was roughly as popular with Democrats and independents as Joe Biden is now. I am hopeful that Democrats have learned their lesson from 2010 and refrain from insulting the president of their party who is overwhelmingly popular with their party’s voters. Third, while Robitaille was not a household name, he had not just shown up that year (he was born in RI and had lived in RI for years); he was also active in Republican politics (he lost a race for House District 72 in 2006 by a margin of four votes) and had served as director of communications for Governor Carcieri. And fourth, to my earlier point, dissatisfied Democratic voters had somewhere else to go: Lincoln Chafee.

Ultimately, if Kalus is the nominee, the Rhode Island Republican Party is making two gambles. First, that everything goes right; that the Democrats screw up, that national conditions provide the most favorable electorate possible, and that no independent with any sort of sizable support appears. Second, that in lieu of having a candidate with any sort of name recognition or ties to the electorate, that their brand is strong enough to attract donations and not toxic enough to prevent voters who would otherwise support the Democratic nominee from voting for the GOP. I should also point out that it’s entirely because Kalus is a Republican that media is taking her somewhat seriously as a candidate; were she an independent or even a Democrat there would’ve been nowhere near this level of coverage.

Anyhow, these are incredibly big gambles. The first is out of their control entirely. And they simply have not done the work on the latter; their party chair is someone mismanaged a Republican stronghold town to the point it was won in a Democratic sweep, their former House leader had a viral racist tweet, and their current House leader has said Nazis in the street are not as dangerous as fictitious communists. And that’s to say nothing of their support for the book-banning crusaders targeting antiracist and LGBT texts or its hostility to environmentalism. For all their polling that says they should be seeking a “socially moderate”, environmentally-conscious pragmatic Republican, they are decidedly not doing that.

It’s one thing to gamble with your cards held close to your chest. It’s quite another do it with an open hand.

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