How the Invisible Primary for RI Governor Played Out

Way back in… October of 2020 (yikes) I decided it would be a good idea to start a spreadsheet of everyone whose name was dropped for governor (and then other major offices) during the long run up to the race. This was inspired by the work of Prof. Seth Masket, who kept a spreadsheet during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary to track this (indeed, mine was based off his).

Masket’s purpose was to pay attention to what is referred to as “the invisible primary” – which is the maneuvering for support among party leaders and organizations by candidates. This is a crucial part of running for office, especially in a party as networked as the Democratic Party.

In the invisible primary, trial balloons (dropping your name to reporters, or having someone else do it on behalf of you) can be a useful way to test potential support (e.g., how many calls or texts do you get when your name appears in a roundup of “who could run for governor?”). Thus, when I was tracking this, I relied mostly on media reports, candidate filings, or the existence of websites/social media accounts like “So-and-so for RI” to decide whether a candidate was in the mix.

Now, with filing finished and signatures certified, I can finally do some visualizations of what went down.

The Democratic Primary

Examine on Flourish here.

One of the most notable aspects of the primary so far is that half of the candidates have been it for a long time. It’s been pretty obvious since 2014 that Dan McKee and Nellie Gorbea were putting themselves on trajectories to run for governor, and the same was considered true of Jorge Elorza and Seth Magaziner.

So, from November 2018, these obvious candidates were among the first to be discussed as running (along with then-mayors James Diossa and Joseph Solomon, Sr.).

Though Matt Brown didn’t officially announce until September 2021, he was on the radar as early as January of 2019. And after that, there were quarterly mentions of names until about June of 2020. However, none of those names made serious moves about running, and the only one who held any pretensions of contesting the race was Tom Iannitti (though he ultimately failed to file). It’s possible that the preservation of the 2nd Congressional District following the Census meant that James Langevin decided not to seriously pursue the office, but his unexpected retirement anyway suggests that he wouldn’t have made it to filing even if RI had been reduced to a single congressperson.

There were also plenty of denials or withdrawals. Here are a few of the firmest:

  • Former Providence Mayor Angel Taveras: “I have not given 2022 any thought and have no intention (or desire) to be a candidate.” (This was given to Patrick Anderson in the Providence Journal less than two weeks after the 2018 general election).
  • Attorney General Peter Neronha: “I’m not running for governor, I’ve never had any interest in it. I still don’t. I love being Attorney General. It’s the only office I ever would’ve run for.” (Said to the Public’s Radio’s Ian Donnis.)
  • Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza: “After serious review, and in consultation with my family, I have decided I will not be a candidate for any office in the next election cycle.” (This was the second sentence in his announcement that he would not run. Despite this very clear statement that he would not seek any office, his name was still mentioned as a potential candidate to succeed Langevin in the 2nd Congressional District.)

There were two relatively late entries. First, Luis Daniel Muñoz decided to enter the primary in April of 2021 rather than contest as an independent. It was clear that Muñoz intended to run again, but it wasn’t clear if he would eschew party politics or not.

Second was Helena Foulkes, who, as best I can tell, didn’t have her name appear among the press until a July 2021 Dan McGowan column examining how Elorza could impact the race (the Mayor withdrew two months later). Said Dan: “…there are still some Gina Raimondo acolytes pining to see a moderate problem solver like US Wind CEO Jeffrey Grybowski or former CVS executive Helena Foulkes toss their hats in the ring…” So the idea that Foulkes is following Raimondo’s template didn’t come out of nowhere.

Finally, one additional candidates showed up during filing: Kalilu Camara, who may have attempted to run from RI for President of the Gambia during that nation’s 2021 presidential election election. Camara did not qualify for the ballot in either the Gambia or RI.

The Republican Party

Examine on Flourish here.

Okay, so something we should get out of the way: people are a lot more interested in speculating if someone is running than confirming they are not running. So, a lot of these candidates never were serious contenders. Just that no one ever managed to get solid public information that they weren’t running.

That said, what’s incredible about the hunt for the Republican nomination was just how many people were not seeking it. This was less an invisible primary, and more a question of whether there would even candidate. Scott Avedisian and Bob Flanders had been mentioned as potential nominees as far back as 2018, and House Minority Leader Blake Fillippi was considered to have the nomination if he had wanted it.

It became sort of a running joke. Reporters would reach out to RIGOP Chair Sue Cienki asking if someone was going to run, and she’d tell them that someone would be announcing within a few months, and then nothing would occur. Indeed, the first person to actually announce for the Republican nomination for Governor was Rey Herrera, who was connected with the pro-cannabis but ultra-conservative Compassion Party folks (Herrera only collected three valid signatures for his own nomination, which is an impressively low amount in an office that requires 1000 be collected).

It’s incredible to read the names. The Republican Party’s bench is so decimated they were stuck praying for legislative minority leaders, three mayors of Cranston (including one who had decamped to Wyoming), along with a number of folks who had formerly run for the nomination and lost. Of these names, only Jeff Grybowski seemed like a truly viable candidate (a successful businessman and the former Chief of Staff to RI’s last Republican governor), but he was talked about just as often as a potential Democratic candidate as much as a Republican. And yet, none even decided to pull papers.

And so, the Republican Party has Ashley Kalus. But now she unexpectedly has to face a primary from Johnathan Riccitelli. Unlike Kalus, Riccitelli has actually run for office in RI before (albeit as an independent who won less than 10,000 votes for lieutenant governor in the 2018 general).

So What?

One thing I think this illustrated to me was just how dominant the RI Democratic Party has become and how moribund the RIGOP is. Effectively, for the last eight years, the RI Dems have had candidates ready to go, and even those that didn’t run were potentially formidable. And even the out-of-nowhere candidate, Foulkes, has enough financial resources, the resume, and connections to the party that she’s quite viable.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party, which held the governor’s office for 16 out of the nearly 28 years that RI governors have served four-year terms, is scraping the bottom of the barrel to the point they’ve effectively imported a candidate from Illinois. It’s an incredible reversal of fortunes.

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