WARWICK, R.I. — Allan Fung, the Rhode Island Republican hoping to break the Democrats’ grip on this blue state and win an open House seat, says he gets an earful about the rising cost of food and fuel no matter where he goes.
From the neighborhoods of Providence to former mill towns along the Pawtuxet River, “skyrocketing prices, that’s what’s on people’s minds,” he said.
On Thursday morning, it was Tom Bucci, the owner of Warwick Ice Cream, lamenting the bite inflation is taking out of his budget. “Everything’s more expensive,” he said, including the essential ingredient in his company’s product. “Before COVID, the price of cream was $6 or $7 a gallon. Now it’s $17.50.”
Bucci is an unaffiliated voter who says he’s voted for both Barack Obama and Donald Trump. He blames the Democrats for inflation and is supporting Fung, who stopped by the company’s headquarters just 12 days before the election.
Fung, the former mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island’s second-largest city, is locked in a tight race with Democrat Seth Magaziner for the 2nd District seat now held by Democrat Jim Langevin, who is retiring. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race as Tilt Democratic, and a polling average maintained by FiveThirtyEight.com has Fung leading by 5.9 percentage points.
This shouldn’t be a contest: Joe Biden won the district by more than 13 points in 2020, and Republicans hold no statewide or federal offices in Rhode Island. The 2nd District has been held by a Democrat since 1991.
But this year, the race, like others in blue states from California to New York, is causing headaches for Democrats — and giving Republicans hope.
Blue New England
New England, which hasn’t sent a Republican to the House since Maine’s Bruce Poliquin left in 2019, has emerged as an unlikely battleground. In Connecticut, a new poll put Republican George Logan ahead of Democratic Rep. Jahana Hayes, and the GOP is also investing resources in races in Maine and New Hampshire.
Fung, 52, is the son of Chinese immigrants who owned a restaurant. He has cast himself as a can-do pragmatist and a moderate in the mold of New England’s popular GOP governors: Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Chris Sununu of New Hampshire and Phil Scott of Vermont. He says he was drawn to the Republican Party by fiscal issues, not a social agenda. “My parents ran a small business, and I saw how hard it is to earn a dollar and how tough it is, especially in a state like ours, to keep that dollar and support a family,” he said.
Fung’s 12 years leading Cranston have been the springboard for his political aspirations, and even some Democrats praised his management of the city.
“I knew Allan Fung from when he was cleaning dishes in his parents’ Chinese restaurant,” said Susan Lemay, a registered nurse from Cranston who supports Magaziner. “He did a good job as mayor, he really straightened out the finances.”
Democrats have pushed back against Fung’s image as a genial centrist. They have painted him as an ideologue who forged alliances with election deniers and who supports limiting access to abortion.
Heavy GOP spending
Fung, they say, would walk in lockstep with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader who has invested both time and money in Fung’s campaign. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC aligned with McCarthy, has spent more than $2.5 million this cycle on attack ads against Magaziner, according to a running tally maintained by Daily Kos Elections.
“There are a lot of people who maybe knew my opponent as a mayor who are realizing they don’t want Kevin McCarthy and the Republicans in charge of Congress,” said Magaziner, 39, Rhode Island’s state treasurer.
Fung has stuck closely to the GOP’s messaging on the economy. “People are worried about their finances, and the Democrats have abandoned working-class voters,” said Patricia L. Morgan, a Republican state representative from West Warwick. “They’re not the Kennedy Democrats anymore.”
Both parties have sought to nationalize the race, said Emily Lynch, a political scientist at the University of Rhode Island. “Magaziner has tried to frame Fung as an extremist,” she said. And Fung has sought to tie Magaziner to Biden, who has a 52% job disapproval rating in Rhode Island.
In a sign of just how seriously Democrats are taking the campaign, the party deployed Jill Biden to the state on Wednesday. The first lady, one of this cycle’s most popular surrogates, addressed a crowd of about 250 at a free ziti-and-meatball dinner in Cranston with Magaziner and other Democrats. (The Rhode Island Democratic Party notes that Fung on Wednesday held a fundraiser in Boston with House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., who is poised to become majority leader should the GOP regain the House.)
Biden came to Cranston to rev up the crowd, though she never mentioned Fung by name.
“Right now there are politicians out there who treat government like a sport, and it sounds like there’s a couple here in Rhode Island,” Biden said. “But governing isn’t a game. There’s no ‘us vs. them,’ no teams to root for or against. We’re just people, Americans from all walks of life who deserve hope.”
Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island offered a blunter assessment. “We have to hold this state,” he said. “It’s not just about an individual candidacy, it’s about the future of our country. If Allan Fung goes down and votes for Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House, he is giving the keys to those election deniers and people who are going to take away all the benefits we worked so hard for.”
The closeness of the race has made some Democrats uncomfortable. “We came back from vacation and my friend said Fung’s ahead, and I said, ‘You’re kidding me,’” said Jim Daley of Cranston, who came to hear Biden.
“Nobody expected that Rhode Island would be a place where we’d have to worry about things,” added his wife, Kathy Daley. “Holy mackerel, it’s been difficult for everybody.”
Lynch, the political science professor from the University of Rhode Island, said the 2nd Congressional District has been drifting toward Republicans for a while now. “In 2000, the Republicans got 14 percent of the vote in the 2nd District, but that’s climbed up,” she said, noting that Langevin’s underfunded GOP opponent netted almost 41.5 percent in 2020.
Rhode Island, Lynch noted, is a blue state, but even here, unaffiliated voters make up the bulk of the electorate. “We have an independent political culture here,” she said.