This week offered further proof that Rhode Island politics is the gift that keeps giving, right? Thanks for stopping by for my weekly column. As usual, your tips and comments are welcome, and you can follow me through the week on the twitters. Here we go.
1. Two surprises have punctuated Rhode Island’s 2018 gubernatorial race so far — Joe Trillo‘s decision to run as an independent rather than a Republican, and now, Matt Brown‘s plan to run as an independent after a long absence from the state’s Democratic politics. Brown’s emergence is a bookend to Trillo’s move, since each candidate threatens to siphon votes from a different side of the political spectrum, potentially having an outsized influence on the final vote in November. That’s even more so due to Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo‘s soft numbers in a WPRI-TV poll out this week. Raimondo’s 37 percent approval rating reflect how she hasn’t connected with Rhode Islanders after more than three years in office. The poll shows Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, a Republican, in a competitive position, and suggests that rival Republican Patricia Morgan, since she’s widely unknown, has room to grow in the GOP primary. There is a host of other candidates — ranging from Republican Giovanni Feroce and independent Luis-Daniel Munoz to a Moderate to be named later, and Democratic outsiders Spencer Dickinson and Paul Roselli. (Former Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who remains on the sidelines, tells me he plans to make a decision by late May, and reiterated that he plans to run as a Democrat if he pursues a campaign.) Seen one way, this proliferation of candidates offers Rhode Islanders a variety of choices on the future leadership of the state. Then again, the wide-open field virtually guarantees that the state’s next governor will again be elected with less than 50 percent of the vote (as happened in 2010 and 2014). The question now is whether the shrinking slice of pie needed to win the race leads other candidates to join the fray.
2. While it would be nice to think that the array of gubernatorial candidates will make for a spirited gubernatorial debate, the 2018 campaign will likely be, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short. For now, there’s a lot of waiting going on. With just six months until the September primary, Gov. Raimondo has yet to announce her re-election campaign — in part because she doesn’t want to be outflanked on the left by Lincoln Chafee. Mayor Fung‘s campaign has declined interview requests for months from outlets like Rhode Island Public Radio, because he 1) wants to be the GOP nominee without acknowledging there’s a primary; 2) doesn’t want to be outflanked on the right by Patricia Morgan; and 3) seemingly wants to avoid addressing how he’d solve some of the issues for which he criticizes the incumbent. Raimondo is sitting on a campaign fund of more than $3.3 million, and the Republican Governors Association is keeping a close eye on the Rhode Island race. Most voters won’t tune in until far later in the year. By then, negative commercials will be in constant rotation on TV, and the 2018 race will feature heightened efforts to persuade voters via Facebook and other online sources.
3. Management at WPRI-TV deserves a tip of the cap for its singular and ongoing commitment to commissioning polls by respected pollster Joseph Fleming, and for releasing the full product, questions and all. A few highlights from the latest poll, conducted this time around in cooperation with Roger Williams University: 1) Just 40 percent of respondents think Rhode Island is moving in the right direction, but that’s a big improvement from 11.5 percent in 2010. Interestingly, independent voters favor wrong track over right track by a 2-to-1 margin, while 60 percent of Democrats said the state is on the right track. For messaging purposes, that suggests Democrats can be reached with a “let’s continue the momentum” message, while independents, especially men, want to hear about how “Rhode Island is still broken and we need to fix it”; 2) Fung has a 12-point lead among independent voters (the biggest slice of the electorate) in a hypothetical matchup with Raimondo. Meanwhile, Fleming used bold print to highlight this message: “It should be noted that one out of five independent voters are not sure on who they would support”; 3) 69 percent of respondents were not familiar enough with Morgan, and 67 percent with Joe Trillo, to say if they would support them; 4) Raimondo is viewed favorably by 50 percent of respondents, 13 points better than her job approval rating. Her 26.7 percent “very unfavorable” rating is 11 points higher than her very favorable number.
4. The Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee is likely digesting with interest U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse‘s numbers in the WPRI poll. His positive ranking (46.1 percent) was slightly below his negative ranking (48.4 percent), and 58 percent of independents view the two-term Democrat negatively. For now, Republicans Robert Flanders and Robert “Bobby” Nardolillo are competing in the GOP primary. While defeating incumbents is usually a challenge, some of the deep-pocketed interests who dislike Whitehouse and his politics may welcome the chance to give him a serious challenge — and send a message to other Democratic senators with an outspoken partisan profile.
5. Matt Brown says he began thinking about running for governor a few weeks ago and he explains his thought-process this way: “I have felt for a while that we have big problems — economic, environmental, social — that go deep and that run back for decades. And I have some bold big ideas for how to solve those problems and so I want to put these forward to Rhode Islanders and begin talking to them.” By messaging about solutions and eschewing political labels, he’s courting the big slice of independent voters in the state and others dissatisfied with the status quo. Brown, 48, said he will utilize the state’s matching fund program for raising money, adding, “My goal is to raise the money we need to raise, get the public match, and then spend all the time I possibly can out around the state talking to people in person.” Brown appeared headed for a bright political future when he defeated Secretary of State Edward Inman, the establishment choice, in a 2002 Democratic primary. But he faded from view and moved to DC after a campaign finance issue snarled his 2006 U.S. Senate run (when Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, running against the unpopular presidency of George W. Bush, went on to oust then-Republican Lincoln Chafee.) Brown…