While the trend nationally has been to oust the incumbents, and the local pundits and politicos seemed braced for an upset, Rhode Islanders stuck by the status quo in the 2018 primary election Wednesday.
Democrats roundly rejected Matt Brown’s upstart challenge to Governor Gina Raimondo, the more moderate incumbent. And they narrowly stuck by Lt. Governor Dan McKee over Aaron Regunberg, a 28-year-old two-term state representative and leading voice of the local progressive movement. They also overwhelmingly chose Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Congressman David Cicilline instead of their challengers. The other three statewide candidates – Seth Magaziner, for treasurer, Nellie Gorbea, for secretary of state, and Peter Neronha, for attorney general, ran unopposed in the primary.
Republicans followed suit in supporting the status quo. They re-nominating Cranston Mayor Allan Fung as its candidate for governor. Fung lost to Raimondo in 2014; their primary victories set up a deja vu general election campaign, with Trump-support Joe Trillo playing the part of Bob Healey this year.
Fung’s victory came as no surprise, but all of Rhode Island seemed to feel that the progressive left had a chance to pull off a big upset, or maybe even two. Both Brown and Regunberg were endorsed by Justice Democrats, a national group started by Bernie Sanders supporters credited with helping Alexandria Octavio Cortez pull off her upset win in New York.
Raimondo won a comfortable 57.2 percent of the 116,612 votes Democrats made for governor. Brown, a former secretary of state who had fallen off Rhode Island’s radar before emerging as a late-entry candidate, captured just 33.5 percent. Former legislator Spencer Dickinson did surprisingly well, taking 9.3 percent.
McKee vs. Regunberg was much closer. It was decided by about 2,388 votes. McKee won 51.1 percent and Regunberg 48.9 percent. Close enough that an organized effort by far-right conservatives to register as Democrats to vote against progressives could have made a difference.
In several General Assembly races the power of incumbency seemed to best even the power of the House speaker, known as the epicenter of power in RI politics. Left-leaning representatives Moira Walsh and Marcia Ranglin-Vassell defended their seats against challengers backed by conservative House Speaker Nick Mattiello, who despite some controversial efforts – including going all in for a former Trump supporter against Walsh – didn’t seem able to hold much influence over the primaries.
But incumbency didn’t prove all powerful in legislative primaries, and that cut for and against the progressive left. Senator Jeanine Calkin, a Bernie supporter who had pulled off an upset in 2016 and quickly became a popular and outspoken voice for the left, couldn’t beat her better-financed challenger Mark McKenney, who had the support of leadership and the influential pro-labor print shop Checkmate Consulting in his corner. On the other hand, Sam Bell, former front man for the RI Progressive Democrats, won a three-way race against Senator Paul Jabour.
Where incumbency wasn’t a factor in General Assembly primaries, the progressive left did very well. Activist Rebecca Kislak kept Providence’s District 4 seat deep blue. In a sign that the affluent coastal suburbs are moving to the left, Bridget Valverde won a Senate primary in East Greenwich/North Kingstown/Narragansett, while Laufton Ascencao won a House primary in Warren/Bristol, and Liana Cassar won in Barrington. All four candidates fended off challengers backed by legislative leadership, so it doesn’t seem as if the status quo is all-powerful in the Ocean State. But it did have a pretty good night on Wednesday.