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Rhode Island special election also tests definition of Democrat

Dueling factions drawn to crowded primary to succeed Cicilline

Gabe Amo
Gabe Amo, a Democrat running in the special primary in Rhode Island's 1st District, greets voters Cynthia and Mark Butler in Barrington, R.I., on July 31. (Daniela Altimari/CQ Roll Call)

BARRINGTON, R.I. — Clutching a fistful of leaflets, Democratic congressional candidate Gabe Amo strides up the front walkway of a house in this coastal community, ready to launch into his standard stump speech — only to be met by an unanswered door.

Such are the pitfalls of running in a special election in the middle of the summer when few voters are paying attention.

Amo is one of a dozen Democrats competing for the 1st District seat, which has been vacant since Democrat David Cicilline stepped down in June to run Rhode Island’s largest nonprofit foundation. 

The winner of the crowded Democratic primary on Sept. 5 in the solidly blue district is almost certain to prevail in the special general election on Nov. 7.

What’s less clear is which version of the Democratic Party will win out.

The contenders range from a progressive former state representative who received the backing of Sen. Bernie Sanders to a long-shot contender who supports additional restrictions on abortion and believes government “shouldn’t be in your gun safe.” Also in the mix are several establishment candidates with experience in federal, state and local government, a state senator who’s been endorsed by labor unions and a self-funder who teaches a course at Yale.

The campaign is unfolding at the height of summer, when many voters aren’t thinking about politics. Early voting starts next week, on Aug. 16.

There’s been no public polling in the race, but Ocean State political observers have put a handful of the candidates in the top tier: Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos; former White House aide Gabe Amo; state Sen. Sandra Cano, a labor favorite; renewable energy investor Don Carlson, who has funded much of his own campaign; and Aaron Regunberg, a lawyer and former state lawmaker favored by progressives.

“The lieutenant governor is probably the best known, but none of them are really household names,’’ said Joe Fleming, a political strategist and analyst for WPRI-TV in Providence. “At this point, people are still trying to get their names out there.”

Many choices

Even voters who are paying attention say they are having trouble making up their mind. 

In Barrington, Christopher Hamilton, a 57-year-old carpenter, tells Amo he’s seen his TV ad but still doesn’t know who will get his vote.

“Well, you’re like 50 percent of the voters in the district,’’ Amo tells him. “There are a lot of people running and that’s OK.”

Cynthia Butler, 66, also met Amo when he knocked on her door one afternoon last week. She told him that she, too, has seen his ads and is impressed with his resume. “There are such a huge number of people running and we were trying to winnow down,’’ she said. 

There are also two Republicans — Terri Flynn and Gerry Leonard — running for the seat, which the GOP hasn’t held in nearly three decades. In 2020, President Joe Biden won the 1st District — which includes most of Providence and hugs the jagged coast along the state’s eastern flank — by capturing nearly 64 percent of the vote.

Although the outcome of the special election is unlikely to alter the balance of power in the House, the stakes in the primary are high: congressional seats rarely come open in Rhode Island and the winner of the Democratic primary could remain in office for a decade or more, if history is any guide.

Perhaps that explains why the race has sparked interest from national groups who view it as a proxy battle for the ideological soul of the Democratic Party. Several major political action groups have endorsed candidates and an ad war has begun playing out on the airwaves.

“Special elections often serve as a barometer,’’ said Charles Hunt, professor of political science at Boise State University who has studied congressional elections and grew up in Rhode Island. While political strategists and the media “like to read a lot into special election outcomes, in this case, it is just a snapshot of how a certain set of Democrats are feeling at one time in one very small state.”

Still, a strong showing by Regunberg, who along with Sanders has the endorsement of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, could provide proof of the left’s strength in the run-up to the 2024 elections, Hunt said. 

“There’s always this push and pull between the more progressive-leaning Democrats and the more traditional establishment wing of the party,’’ he said. “If a progressive candidate wins, you have groups pointing to that as evidence that there’s an appetite for this outside of places like Vermont and California and maybe Joe Biden should pursue more progressive policy priorities in advance in the 2024 election.”

A victory by a more traditional candidate would suggest the inverse: “that [Democrats] need to win a lot of independents in order to beat Donald Trump so we can’t be going on flights of fancy in terms of policy,’’ Hunt said. 

The low-profile race got a jolt last month, when election officials flagged some of the nominating signatures submitted by the Matos campaign as potentially fraudulent. State Attorney General Peter Neronha is conducting a criminal investigation.

Matos called the incident “painful” and blamed a vendor for the questionable signatures. She said her campaign is ready to cooperate with investigators and she hopes the matter doesn’t undermine people’s faith in the electoral process.

Sabina Matos
Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos campaigns in Providence, R.I., on Aug. 1 in the special Democratic primary for the open House seat in the 1st District. (Daniela Altimari/CQ Roll Call)

Ideology is one way the candidates in the race have sought to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack; biography is another. 

Introductory ads from both Matos and Amo highlight their life stories. Matos is a naturalized citizen who came to Rhode Island from the Dominican Republic and packed boxes in a jewelry factory while learning English at night. Amo, the son of immigrants from Ghana and Liberia, was “a poor kid from Pawtucket” who set off on a career in politics that ultimately landed him a job as deputy director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs under Biden.

On the campaign trail, both candidates have emphasized their experience in government. 

Matos said her decade on the Providence City Council made her a pragmatist.

“You have to believe the things that you believe and you cannot compromise on those. But you cannot forget that at the end of the day, the city needs to pay its bills, the trash needs to be picked up,’’ Matos said. “So you need to find a way to move your agenda, but also keep in mind that the city and the country need to continue to move forward.”

Matos cited the law increasing the debt ceiling that passed the House earlier this year on a bipartisan vote, despite “no” votes from 46 liberal Democrats. She says she would have backed the measure, noting, “Drawing lines in the sand, that’s not my style.’’

Amo said his time in the White House working as a liaison with local officials across the nation bolstered his belief in bipartisanship. “I’ve probably spoken to more Republican elected officials than anybody else in this race,” said Amo, who was tasked with helping to build local support for the bipartisan infrastructure package. “As President Biden often says, there’s no such thing as a Democratic road or a Republican bridge.”

Regunberg, who lost the 2018 primary for lieutenant governor to current Gov. Dan McKee by less than 2,500 votes, has taken a different approach. A district dominated by Democrats can afford to take a chance on electing a progressive, “to make sure the Democratic Caucus [in the House] is standing up on the issues that matter,’’ he said. “This is the kind of district that can support more than just another Democratic vote. The stakes in this race are really high.”

Turnout will be key

In a crowded primary on a day people probably are not used to voting, 10,000 votes might be all that are needed to win, so Regunberg’s play for progressives is a smart strategy, said Fleming, the political analyst. 

“It’s going to come down to who has the best organization to get their vote out in the early voting in the mail ballots and on primary day,” Fleming said. “It’s going to take a lot of organization and grassroots-type of campaigning to get people to come out to vote the day after Labor Day.’’

Matos has some significant endorsements, including one from the political arm of the New Democrat Coalition, whose members are in the more moderate wing of the House caucus. She also has the backing of EMILY’s List, which backs women who support abortion rights, and Vote Mama. And BOLD PAC, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ campaign fund, has said it would buy ads supporting her.

Amo has the support of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, the Collective PAC and former White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain.

Regunberg’s candidacy is being championed by Reps. Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Ro Khanna of California. Cano won the endorsement of  United Nurses and Allied Professionals, a large health care union, and the National Education Association’s Rhode Island PAC. She’s also backed by several local officials in the district, including the mayors of Pawtucket and North Providence. Carlson has received a boost from the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund.

Ultimately, the ideological divisions between the top-tier candidates aren’t all that significant, Fleming said. “They’re all pretty on the same page on guns, they’re all pretty much the same page on abortion,’’ he said. “Most of these candidates, if they win, they’re going to vote the same way on the issues anyway.”

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