While there was jubilation in the Rhode Island Democratic Party election night party because of the biggest sweep since 1960, that mood was not shared by Democrats in South County.
From Exeter to Westerly, Democrats, and especially progressive Democrats, took an awful beating in General Assembly and Town Council races. Majorities in several South County towns also shifted from blue to red in their votes for state offices.
Since I started living in South County in 2002 and covering local politics at Progressive Charlestown, I had enjoyed watching what seemed to be a steady shift from the region’s historic Swamp Yankee conservatism to more progressive politics. South County sent a high proportion of solid blue Democrats to the State House and voted mostly Blue in state and national races.
But that changed on November 4.
Of the 11 South County communities, only four voted for Gina Raimondo over Allan Fung.
In addition to going GOP for governor, South County lost three terrific progressives – my own state Representative Donna Walsh, Sen. Cathie Cool Rumsey and Rep. Larry Valencia. Each of them faced appallingly unqualified opponents. Donna Walsh lost to a radical “Tenther” who doesn’t even seem to live in the District. Cathie Cool Rumsey lost to Hopkinton’s honorific Town Sheriff who was caught using her uniform to impersonate a police officer.
Larry Valencia lost to a guy whose only previous experience was running as a delegate to the Republican National Convention as a delegate for Ron Paul – and who came in fifth out of five.
In Charlestown, we were totally crushed, losing every single elected office in the town to a group called the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA Party), an off-shoot of the RI Statewide Coalition. If you mixed the Tea Party with the Nature Conservancy and the worst rich people’s homeowners association you can imagine, you’d get something that looks like the CCA.
The CCA Party gets more than 60% of its funding from out of state donors. They provide vacation property owners with the ability to vote with their checkbooks in local elections. The CCA Party has increasingly put Charlestown on a “pay to play” basis where the attention you get from town government is in proportion to the amount you donate to the CCA Party.
But those of us in Charlestown were not alone in our misery. Exeter Democrats also took a terrible beating. Exeter rejected all five state general office winners and provided winning margins for Tea Party Rep. Doreen Costa (R) to be re-elected and for progressive Sen. Cathie Cool Rumsey (D) to be ousted.
It was only 11 months ago that Exeter Democrats rallied to crush a gun lobby-sponsored recall of their Democratic Town Council majority. The “Exeter Four” won a huge victory last December 14 only to see two of the four defeated on November 4, costing them the Town Council majority. The level and sophistication of campaigning in Exeter for the general election bore little resemblance to the way Exeter Democrats won last year’s recall.
Larry Valencia’s home base in Richmond also went very bad. Voters rejected the state slate except for Seth Magaziner and also flipped their Town Council from a Democratic majority to Republican control.
Even in Westerly, a Democratic stronghold, Democrats lost control of the Town Council. So it went in North Kingstown, Narragansett and Hopkinton. When the dust settled, the only solidly Democratic town left in South County is South Kingstown.
South Kingstown was the only municipality not swept up in the red tide. South Kingstown was one of only three South County towns to vote for all five Democratic state office candidates. They also re-elected progressive Democrat Rep. Teresa Tanzi by six points despite a $100,000+ campaign mounted against her by mortgage banker Steve Tetzner.
In another closely watched race, South Kingstown also elected Democrat Kathy Fogarty over her Republican opponent, Lacey McGreevey. Fogarty defeated incumbent Rep. Spencer Dickinson in the primary to get her shot at the seat. She won the general election by 16 points.
On top of all that, South Kingstown voters also elected three Democrats and two independents to their Town Council. One of those independents is RI Sierra Club lobbyist Abel Collins.
So what happened?
Like elsewhere in the country, 2014 voter turn-out in South County was low. It was lower than expected even considering the normal drop-off in non-presidential election years.
In Charlestown, we expected turn-out to drop by 900 from the 2012 count for the presidential race. But the drop-off ended up being more than 1,100. With a total voter registration of just over 6,000, that drop-off had a huge impact on the results.
Challengers to incumbents trumpeted the state GOP’s lead issue – 38 Studios – 24/7. Forget that it was unlamented ex-Governor Donald Carcieri’s (R) idea. However, 38 Studios did not affect the state office races or act as much more than buzzkill in most races. Even Republican Attorney General candidate Dawson Hodgson, who probably banged the 38 Studios drum the loudest, admitted after the election that maybe the issue wasn’t so potent after all.
However, 38 Studios may have had a disproportional effect among our South County Swamp Yankees as it was in just about every one of the many mailers, ads and flyers attacking Democrats.
In many South County races, the conservatives out-spent and out-hustled Democrats. In the House District 36 race, Rep. Donna Walsh’s “Tenther” opponent out-spent her 13-to-1 going into the final month.
But money doesn’t always make the difference, as re-elected Rep. Teresa Tanzi can attest. Tetzner went into the final stretch of the campaign having raised three times as much money than Tanzi, mostly through loans he made to his campaign. Tetzner outspent Tanzi by six to one, but she still won.
By contrast, progressive incumbents Larry Valencia and Cathie Cool Rumsey both out-raised and out-spent their Republican opponents, Justin Price and Elaine Morgan respectively, by wide margins, but still lost.
After reviewing Price’s and Morgan’s campaign finance reports, it looks to me that there was a lot more money in their campaigns than they reported. Morgan, for example, reports having spent only $322 on her campaign up to the last week, but she had campaign signs plastered all over Richmond, Exeter and Hopkinton as well as campaign mailers. She only reported $444 in in-kind donations.
There are still unresolved pieces of the puzzle. At some point, Rep. Donna Walsh will get a hearing in front of the state Board of Elections on her charge that her opponent lied about where he lives and is not really a resident of the 36th District. There may be charges filed in other campaigns for misreporting, ethics violations or campaign sabotage. There are a few recounts to be done of some races for town office.
But in the end, there is a new political reality in South County.
Perhaps with more time and perspective, we’ll be able to figure out what went wrong, but we now live with the reality that on November 4, South County flipped from blue to red. We have to figure out how to flip it back.