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In Blue Rhode Island, Why Is Governor Race Close?

In Blue Rhode Island, Why Is Governor Race Close?

By David Byler - October 29, 2014

Rhode Island is one of the bluest states in the country. In 2012 President Obama won there with nearly two-thirds of the vote, and the state’s entire congressional delegation is Democratic. Democrats dominate down the ballot, holding over 80 percent of the seats in both houses of the legislature.

Despite this Democratic ascendancy in the state, Republican gubernatorial candidate Allan Fung has kept the contest with Democratic opponent Gina Raimondo relatively close, trailing by just four percentage points in the RCP polling average. (A Brown University survey released Tuesday shows a much tighter race, with Raimondo ahead by a much narrower margin, 38 percent-37 percent, with third-party candidate Bob Healey at 12 percent.) This raises an obvious question: How has Fung done so well?

The short answer: It’s because the electorate is less reliably “blue” than initial appearances might suggest and, more specifically, because there is diversity within the state's Democratic Party, creating a particular opportunity for Republican gubernatorial candidates.

In 2012, Nate Silver referenced the peculiar composition of the electorate when he wrote, “Rhode Island is not a swing state, but it has quite a lot of swing voters.” As of May 2013, 40.1 percent of the electorate was Democratic, only 10.2 percent was Republican and 49.5 percent was Independent. These Independents are persuadable. If they are presented with a strong candidate who mirrors their ideology, they are willing to vote for that candidate irrespective of his or her party. A skilled, moderate Republican candidate can begin to build a serious coalition by focusing first on these swing voters.

Independents aren’t the only targets for Republican candidates. The state Democratic Party contains a significant conservative element. According to Brian Newberry, minority leader in the Rhode Island House of Representatives, “lots of Democrats here would be Republicans somewhere else, but they don’t feel they can win without a ‘D’ next to their name.”

Democrats have dominated Rhode Island partially because of ideology -- it is still a relatively liberal state overall -- but also because of historical circumstance. In 1935, Democrats -- supported by an influx of Catholic immigrants from Europe and Canada -- gained control of the legislature and governor’s mansion. They proceeded to “purge” Republicans from the state government. The Republican-held state Supreme Court was declared vacant, key Republican-controlled institutions were dissolved, and the government was restructured to concentrate power in the democratically controlled executive branch.

The Rhode Island GOP never fully recovered from those events, and as a result the state Democratic Party contains a significant number of conservatives and moderates who do not want that “R” next to their names. If a Republican candidate won the support of moderate-to-conservative Democrats and persuadable Independents, then he or she could have a formidable coalition.  

As a general matter, gubernatorial candidates have a particularly good opportunity to build this sort of coalition. Gubernatorial elections tend to center on state-level issues, so if candidates fashion a compelling personal brand, they can more easily distance themselves from their national party. This has allowed Rhode Island Republicans to win the governorship in 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006 -- years when GOP candidates for the state’s U.S. Senate and House seats typically floundered.

This time-tested formula has allowed Fung, the three-term mayor of Cranston, to keep the race competitive, but it does not guarantee a win. As a businesswoman and current state treasurer, Gina Raimondo has a strong resume, a solid party infrastructure behind her, and a lead in the polls. Though she is likely to win on Election Day, the dynamics within the state are keeping Fung in the game and will leave the door open for future GOP candidates there.

David Byler is an elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at dbyler@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidbylerRCP.

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