Where does the R.I. GOP go after difficult Election Day showing?

ALLAN W. FUNG reacts after losing the 2nd Congressional District race Nov. 8. / AP PHOTO/STEVEN SENNE
ALLAN W. FUNG reacts after losing the 2nd Congressional District race Nov. 8. / AP PHOTO/STEVEN SENNE

PROVIDENCE – The “Red Wave” many Republicans both locally and nationally were hoping for never made it to the shores of Rhode Island on Nov. 8. And for the party known as the “Grand Old Party,” a Republican presence in state-elected seats remains anything but grand.

The 2nd Congressional District race between R.I. Treasurer and Democrat Seth Magaziner and former Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung had become a national talking point where many political pundits felt Rhode Island would have a Republican serve in the U.S. Capitol. But voters on Nov. 8 felt otherwise. Fung, who lost two previous gubernatorial races in 2014 and 2018, was handed another high-level state election loss.

Ashley Kalus’ run for governor came to a crashing end on Nov. 8 when she lost by 18.8% to Democratic incumbent Daniel J. McKee – who earned his first full term as the state’s top elected official. McKee’s win was the largest the state has seen since Bruce Sundlun won by more than 27% in 1992 over Republican Elizabeth A. Leonard. Other state-level races, such as the lieutenant governor’s and the attorney general’s, all were won by Democrats.

“The Republicans should be humiliated [after what happened Nov. 8],” Providence College associate political science professor Joseph Cammarano told Providence Business News.

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So, how does the Rhode Island GOP claw its way back? Depends on who you ask.

The Rhode Island Republican Party’s chairperson remains optimistic that the party had this year the highest number of candidates running for the General Assembly it ever had and the process to put infrastructure in place to get more people involved with the GOP is lengthy. However, some experts feel the Rhode Island GOP is in crisis and the party needs to find ways to align with what voters in Rhode Island truly want from their leaders.

Rhode Island Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Cienki told PBN 66 candidates ran for General Assembly seats, many of them first-time candidates, this year, which she says is the most the state GOP has ever had. She also said “a lot” of candidates received 40% of the vote in their races, as well, and the candidates are taking a positive outlook on the situation.

“Those candidates are committed to running again,” Cienki said. “They’re not taking this as a defeat. We’re not going to roll over; they’re going to keep going.”

But, Cienki cited the low voter turnout on Nov. 8, with Republican voters just assuming easy wins based on buying too much into the “Red Wave” hype, as what caused the local Republicans’ downfall on Election Day. Plus, she acknowledged that having more people running and getting a lot of votes and winning seats are two different things.

Cienki said this year was the first time the GOP had a “true field operations” system to help get candidates out in front of voters. She also said the GOP will do an “after action” review to regularly monitor what local voters want from their elected officials, as well as the candidates watching what their Democratic opponents are doing while in office.

“They’ll be watching… and use those votes [in the General Assembly] to show their constituents the outcomes of what they did,” Cienki said, “and whether or not the constituents agree with that.”

So, just how scarce is the GOP’s presence inside the R.I. Statehouse? A PBN analysis of all 50 U.S. general assembly legislatures shows that, by percentage, Rhode Island has the second-lowest Republican representation in the country at 12.4%. If current election results hold, the Ocean State will have 14 total state representatives and senators wearing red in the 113-seat General Assembly.

Some local General Assembly races are not yet finished. Currently, Rep. Justin Price, R-Richmond and Republican candidates Marie Hopkins and Nicola Antonio Grasso have requested recounts in their respective House races, Cienki confirmed to PBN, and those recounts could occur Nov. 14 if the candidates’ requests are granted.

Hawaii, at 6.6% – five Republicans filling 76 total seats in the Hawaii State Legislature – has a lower percentage than Rhode Island. Fourteen U.S. states that have fewer elected state legislature positions, including blue states Oregon, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Delaware, have a stronger Republican presence than what Rhode Island has.

Since 2010, Rhode Island’s Republican leadership in the General Assembly has dropped from 18 members that year to now 14. It has not exceeded 15 members since 2014, according to PBN’s analysis.

In Providence, newly elected Mayor Brett Smiley’s day on Nov. 8 was merely a formality since he won the Democratic primary back in September and there was no Republican challenger for the general election. Daniel Harrop and David Talan have been the only Republicans since 2002 to seek the Providence mayor’s office, let alone claim it. There have been six candidates who sought the mayor’s office in that time either as an independent or with the Green party.

The late Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci, whose run as the city’s longest-serving mayor was mixed with prosperity within the city and controversy having to resign twice due to felony convictions, was the last Republican mayor to hold office in Providence from 1974-1982. Cianci, who died in 2016 two years after finishing second to Jorge O. Elorza in his last election effort, became an independent in 1983.

Wendy Schiller, professor of political science at Brown University, agrees that the Republican party has to front more candidates to run for office statewide, and the party needs money for that. She feels the Rhode Island GOP needs to find a “wealthy Republican donor” that is willing to fund that effort.

“If you run more people, you create the impression that you’re a viable party,” Schiller said. “If you create that impression, people will pay more attention to your candidates, and you do better.”

Cienki said there is a young Republicans chapter in Providence that “want to get more involved” after seeing more GOP officials on the campaign trail this year, which she hopes to result in more candidates seeking office within the city.

But in general, both Cammarano and Schiller say as long as the national Republican party has positions that are that don’t jibe from what Rhode Islanders believe in, local Republicans will remain having difficulty obtaining elective office. Schiller says in order to succeed politically, Republicans will have to propose policies the residents who reside in Democrat-heavy communities would want. Whether that’s obtainable is a big question mark, she said.

Cammarano feels Fung would “have had a hard time” if he gained Rep. James R. Langivin’s former seat in Washington, D.C., because Fung is a conservative on “some issues, but not all.”

“He is moderate to conservative on fiscal issues, but not a full free marketeer,” Cammarano said. “That’s not what is considered acceptable among Republicans in Washington, which is if you don’t abide by every single position, they’re not going to support you in the future and not going to get the committee assignment you want.”

Cammarano is also heavily critical of both Mike and Sue Stenhouse in their efforts in running the Rhode Island GOP, going as far as calling for Sue Stenhouse – who is the Rhode Island House Republican Caucus’ chief of staff – resign from the party. Cammarano says he’s “astounded” that Sue Stenhouse has not walked away from the GOP after the Republicans’ failed bids for office on Nov. 8 and how the party has struggled in recent years.

Cammarano feels Rhode Island Republican leadership should do a “two-week field trip” up to Vermont and New Hampshire – the only New England state that has a Republican majority in the General Assembly – to see what the Republicans do there and learn from it.

“It could be a model for Republicans in Rhode Island if they get their head out of their butts,” Cammarano said.

One GOP campaign official even called on the party to start taking mail ballots and early voting, which is a sticking point for some Republicans who allege the process results in vote tampering, more seriously. In a Thursday tweet, Matt Hanrahan, who was Kalus’ communications director, said mail ballots are now part of elections in blue states “like it or not.”

“If Rs want to win, we need to accept that and play the game – and play it better,” Hanrahan tweeted. “Our party needs to stop making excuses, stop crying foul, and develop strategies to compete in 21st century elections.”

Despite the low numbers and future political success remains to be seen, Cienki says she feels a “huge sentiment of excitement” because of the progress she feels the local GOP made this year. She recalled when she first became the GOP’s chairwoman it would be a “12-year plan” to install structure for the party to see in the future.

“You’re not going to change this state overnight,” Cienki said. “It is not [a situation] where there were people disillusioned or sad. They are more fired up than they were [on Nov. 8].”

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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