Ted Nesi’s Saturday Morning Post: Sept. 13

Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column here on WPRI.com – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com, and follow @tednesi on Twitter.

1. As you may have heard, Gina Raimondo won Tuesday’s Democratic gubernatorial primary by an emphatic 13-point margin, receiving about 54,000 votes (42% of the total) against 37,000 for Angel Taveras (29%) and 34,000 for Clay Pell (27%). Raimondo’s victory appears relatively easy to explain: she spent $5 million, twice as much as Martha Coakley did in Massachusetts, to buy appealing TV ads and a strong field operation. She was a disciplined candidate, particularly down the stretch, skilled at staying on message without sounding too programmed. And she ran on the only issue that matters in a state with maddeningly high unemployment and deep economic pessimism: jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs and, oh yeah, jobs. Yet it remains striking to outside observers that someone who courted the wrath of public-sector unions with a package of sweeping and potentially unconstitutional pension changes could win a Democratic primary. Should it be, though? That same pension law cemented Raimondo’s reputation with a sizable bloc of voters as a truth-teller and a doer. More prosaically, the law turbocharged Raimondo’s fundraising, giving her the enormous financial resources she used to battle AFSCME and other powerful labor groups. That campaign war chest, and Raimondo’s financier background, left her open to relentless attacks from Taveras for being too close to Wall Street. If she wins in November, voters will find out whether Taveras and his allies were right to darkly predict she’ll do the financial sector’s bidding as governor, or if that was just campaign rhetoric.

2. In the end, Clay Pell’s loss was no surprise. He was an awkward public speaker with debatable local ties who refused to go negative. The surprise would have been if he won – except to Pell’s own team, which went into Tuesday with real confidence in their Obama-model ground game. They clearly underestimated not only Gina Raimondo’s ability to increase overall voter turnout – which at nearly 128,000 hit the highest mark since 1992 – but also Angel Taveras’s ability to hold onto second place. Taveras and his allies will have no trouble explaining his loss: they blame Pell’s presence and Raimondo’s money. There’s no doubt both were key factors. But Raimondo’s 42% showing suggests she might have beaten Taveras even in a two-way race. The best evidence of that is Providence: instead of winning his home base by the big margin he needed, the mayor actually lost the capital to Raimondo by 271 votes, with the treasurer taking two-thirds of the vote in some East Side precincts. More money would have helped Taveras, undoubtedly, but different messaging may have been needed, too. Avoiding city bankruptcy in 2011 or 2012 really was a hard-won achievement for the mayor and his aides, but voters aren’t big on counterfactuals, and it doesn’t seem to have inspired as much confidence in him as he expected.

3. Despite their losses, Angel Taveras and Clay Pell were still in positive territory with Democratic primary voters as of mid-August, suggesting they both have the potential to mount comebacks in some future race. But what race? The only major offices on the ballot in 2016 are the state’s two congressional seats, and neither Jim Langevin nor David Cicilline has indicated he plans to retire. Challenging an incumbent member of your own party is always a risky move, to say the least. Looking further ahead to 2018, a lot would depend on the outcome this November – if Democrats sweep the races for statewide general office yet again, the only open job would be attorney general.

4. Lincoln Chafee’s 11th-hour quasi-endorsement of Clay Pell was so, so Chafee.

5. Cranston isn’t the reason Allan Fung defeated Ken Block, but it is the reason Fung beat him so handily. The mayor won 75% of the 4,065 votes Cranston residents cast in the GOP primary, which padded his win total nicely and vindicated the field strategy concocted by Steve Frias, a shrewd Fung adviser. But Fung would still have won even without that hometown landslide: he beat Block 52% to 48% outside Cranston, too. That’s partly because Block had nowhere near the same advantage in his own hometown of Barrington. Block won Barrington 63% to 37%, but only 901 votes were cast in the Republican primary there. (Providence resident Gina Raimondo got almost three times as many votes out of Barrington as Block did, even though she received a slightly smaller share of the total.) In short, it helps to have a geographic base, and it helps even more to have a strategy for getting that base to the polls. Still, the fact that a candidate who voted for Barack Obama twice got 45% in a Republican primary in 2014 is a testament to Block’s skills as a campaigner and as a voice of opposition to the Smith Hill powers-that-be.

6. The challenge facing Allan Fung in the fall campaign quickly became apparent in the days after Tuesday’s primary, as out-of-staters from The New York Times to The Economist hailed Gina Raimondo’s win as a national watershed in the politics of pension reform. Many of the stories described Raimondo as a heavy favorite to win in November, with The Washington Post’s Matt Miller going so far as to say she “will now almost certainly defeat her Republican opponent in November.” That remains to be seen, particularly when there has been no public polling of the Fung-Raimondo race, though it’s true that Republicans always face an uphill battle in blue Rhode Island. One advantage Fung is likely to lose quickly: money. Raimondo’s once-huge campaign war chest was all but exhausted by the hard-fought Democratic primary, while Fung is set to get an infusion of roughly $1 million in public money shortly. But all these valentines from national media outlets are sure to help Raimondo replenish her coffers – and with Fung already having ruled out a “People’s Pledge,” there’s nothing stopping the American LeadHERship super PAC and other outside groups from raising big money for a TV blitz. How much money will out-of-state Republicans drop in to help Fung compete?

7. Another interesting thing about Gina Raimondo’s big win Tuesday night is that she seems to have had some electoral coattails that helped other candidates running statewide, though admittedly that’s just speculation since there was no exit polling. But to the extent there was a “Raimondo ticket” – consisting of her, Nellie Gorbea (a member of Raimondo’s 2010 transition team) and Seth Magaziner (a one-time Point Judith Capital staffer with many of the same supporters) – it emerged victorious. The Providence Journal editorial board suggested their victories, along with Dan McKee’s, showed voters had “embraced change” at the top of the ticket. That’s a reasonable way to put it, but it’s worth noting that the same voters renominated almost every Democratic General Assembly incumbent on the ballot.

8. This is where I would usually put a short item to break things up, but I got nothin’. Long week!

9. Our weekly Saturday Morning Post dispatch from WPRI.com reporter Dan McGowan: “If Jorge Elorza does go on to defeat Buddy Cianci and become the next mayor of Providence, Brett Smiley’s decision to exit the race and endorse the former Housing Court judge will undoubtedly be remembered as a pivotal turning point in the campaign. But it wasn’t the only time the stars aligned for the 37-year-old Silver Lake resident over the last year. Elorza was always considered the strongest Latino candidate in the race, but there was a time when both Victor Capellan and Councilwoman Sabina Matos appeared to flirt with running for mayor. Their decision to drop out – Capellan endorsed Elorza and Matos backed Michael Solomon – opened up doors for Elorza on the South Side. (Although he didn’t win Ward 8, 10 or 11, he certainly held his own.) Then there’s Lorne Adrain, the East Side Democrat-turned-independent candidate whose campaign never really materialized before he dropped out of the race in July. Adrain’s departure gave Elorza an opening in the community who ended up comprising nearly 40% of his citywide vote total Tuesday. Smiley’s exit coupled with Solomon’s failure to turn out votes in Mount Pleasant and Elmhurst sealed the deal for Elorza. So how do his chances look against Cianci, who has never lost in his six previous mayoral runs? Very good. Turnout in Providence over the last four mayoral elections has averaged about 36,000 voters; If Elorza, who won 11,000 votes in the primary, can expand his support further on the East Side and win back half of the Roughly 2,600 people who voted for Solomon on the South Side, he’ll be very close to hitting his magic number. That’s not to say Cianci can’t win, of course. He’ll need to energize the North End of the city in ways that Solomon couldn’t, make inroads with the Latino community, and hope African-American voters across the city come out strongly on his behalf (there’s a reason Councilman Kevin Jackson and Leah Williams Metts are co-chairing his campaign). The race is on. Elorza, Cianci and Republican Daniel Harrop will compete in their first debate next Wednesday morning at Laurelmead on the East Side.”

10. Don’t miss Dan McGowan’s fantastic Politico Magazine feature on Buddy Cianci’s comeback bid.

11. No statewide primary win was more of a surprise than Nellie Gorbea’s upset victory over Guillaume De Ramel for secretary of state. Outspent nearly three-to-one and mostly starved of voter attention, Gorbea used free media to the maximum extent possible, outshining De Ramel in debates and raising doubts about his statements. She was also able to capitalize on voters coming out to support both female candidates (Gina Raimondo) and Latino ones (Angel Taveras and Jorge Elorza, among others). Gorbea was extremely well-served by campaign manager Rico Vota, a 33-year-old who will go down as one of the breakout stars in Rhode Island’s political operative class this cycle. “Rico is remarkably earnest and sincere in his motivations,” Ray Sullivan, a Democratic strategist whose firm consulted on De Ramel’s campaign but who met Vota during Laura Pisaturo’s unsuccessful 2012 Senate race, told me. “He isn’t afraid to ask for help or advice, yet possesses the confidence and smart instincts of an operative who’s been in the game for 20 years. Having worked on an underdog General Assembly race, he understands how to capitalize on earned media opportunities, and he certainly knows how to make every dollar count. He just does all the things a good campaign manager should do.” (Tuesday was arguably the second big win of this election year for Vota, who moonlights as an assistant high-school football coach; the first was the birth of his son, a healthy baby boy, in the midst of the campaign.) Gorbea has now gone from underdog to favorite as she faces Republican John Carlevale in the November election, but he could keep things interesting if voters like his support for the state’s voter ID law.

12. Another surprise Tuesday night was Dan McKee’s victory over Ralph Mollis in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. Mollis had the name recognition and plenty of endorsements, but he also had the baggage of bad headlines stemming from Tim White’s 38 Studios lobbying exposé as well as apparent voter disenchantment with insiders. McKee, for his part, benefited from a three-way race (Frank Ferri played the part of Clay Pell in this one) and a big infusion of outside money late in the game. But McKee, who won with the fewest votes of any of the four Democrats who had contested statewide primaries, now faces a new challenge in Republican Catherine Taylor. Taylor would likely have preferred a rematch with Mollis, whom she nearly beat in 2010, but she’s already been putting together a real campaign and raising significant money. Indeed, the McKee nomination may open up new opportunities for Taylor. The National Education Association Rhode Island’s Bob Walsh strongly hinted on this week’s Newsmakers that his teachers’ union may endorse her over McKee, who’s best known as an advocate for charter schools, and the Rhode Island AFL-CIO voted Friday night to oppose McKee and meet with Taylor. This one should be interesting.

13. In the end, the least exciting primary was Seth Magaziner’s landslide victory for the Democratic treasurer nomination over Frank Caprio. Magaziner won a whopping 67% of the vote after spending a lot of money and running a strong campaign. Yet Magaziner isn’t out of the woods: independent Ernie Almonte, his Democratic primary foe until the latter’s June change of plans, will pick up where Caprio left off in questioning the 31-year-old Magaziner’s readiness for the job. In an interview on Rhode Island Public Radio, Magaziner suggested he’ll try to use Almonte’s doubts about spending more money on infrastructure as a key differentiator.

14. One person who might have had mixed feelings once the results were in Tuesday night: House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. The three candidates endorsed by the Rhode Island Democratic Party on Mattiello’s recommendation – Ralph MollisGuillaume De Ramel and Frank Caprio – went down to defeat at the hands of primary voters. With Gina Raimondo as the party’s nominee, Mattiello is now facing the prospect of being the first House speaker in 20 years who has to deal with a Democrat getting elected governor. Raimondo is popular with the same elements of Rhode Island’s establishment business community that have been lionizing Mattiello over the last six months, and unlike him she would have an electoral mandate from voters statewide. Watch for a tug of war over who’s really the top dog at the State House and who leads the Democratic Party. (That fight could start well before Nov. 4.) Mattiello also may want to mend fences with Nellie Gorbea, who has the potential to use the secretary of state’s office to take legislative leaders and other insiders to task in the same way Jim Langevin once did. Still, Mattiello had reasons to smile Tuesday: Dan McKiernan, his handpicked candidate, successfully ousted liberal Rep. Maria Cimini in Providence, and nearly all of his other incumbents survived.

15. Unsurprisingly, Jack Reed looks to be on course to win re-election to the U.S. Senate without much trouble this fall: a new CBS News/New York Times/YouGov poll puts Reed at 52% support, with Republican challenger Mark Zaccaria well behind at 32%. The poll used a new and controversial methodology – an online panel – so its results should be taken with some caution, though those numbers don’t look particularly outlandish. Still, Reed is nothing if not cautious, so he’s not taking things for granted: the first TV ad of his campaign went up the day after the primary. (Reed will also be on “Fox News Sunday” tomorrow to talk Iraq and Syria.)

16. Rhode Island’s other senator, Sheldon Whitehouse, isn’t on the ballot again until 2018. But Washington’s fundraising merry-go-round never stops: the National Association of Broadcasters and Property Casualty Insurers PACs are among the co-hosts of a “rooftop Rhode Island-themed” reception on Whitehouse’s behalf this Tuesday evening. Suggested contributions: $50 to $2,500. Kudos to the Sunlight Foundation for snagging the invite.

17. Read my colleague Walt Buteau’s first-person account of what it was like to cover Sept. 11.

18. I joined Rhode Island PBS’s panel for this week’s episode of “A Lively Experiment” – watch tonight at 7 p.m. on WSBE Learn (Ch. 36.2), Sunday at noon on WSBE-TV (Ch. 36.1) or online at the RI PBS blog.

19. Here’s a roundup of the latest Campaign 2014 endorsements we’ve received: the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 328 endorsed Gina Raimondo … and (Democrat) Charlie Lombardi endorsed (independent) Ernie Almonte.

20. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – a political roundtable including NEARI’s Robert Walsh breaks down the primary results and previews what’s next. This week on Executive SuiteMolly Donohue Magee, executive director of the Southeastern New England Defense Industry Alliance (SENEDIA); Donald Fox, president of Alashan Cashmere Co. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m. on myRITV (or Sunday at 6 a.m. on Fox). See you back here next Saturday morning.

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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