Analysis: Field of RI governor candidates coming into focus

That escalated quickly.

The field of likely 2014 candidates for governor of Rhode Island has come sharply into focus over the last week thanks to three key announcements: Democrat Ernie Almonte’s switch to the treasurer’s race on Thursday, Republican Brendan Doherty’s decision to sit out the race on Friday, and Moderate Party founder Ken Block’s announcement this morning that he’s running again.

Almonte’s exit leaves Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras as the two potential heavyweights in the Democratic primary, setting up a head-to-head clash between the two. Almonte’s absence could boost Raimondo, since both of them have reputations for pension truth-telling and fiscal responsibility, issues that appeal to moderates and conservatives; Taveras has a more wide-ranging portfolio.

That assumes, of course, both Raimondo and Taveras actually jump into the gubernatorial race. While the two Democrats are taking the steps necessary to mount campaigns, until there’s an official announcement the possibility remains that one of them won’t pull the trigger. Raimondo has $1.7 million already and her fundraising shows no sign of slowing, while Taveras has $560,779 and can tap the deep-pocketed network of former DSCC chief J.B. Poersch; a lengthy primary fight could be expensive and bruising.

On the Republican side, Doherty’s decision to take a pass – along with John Robitaille’s a few months back – is great news for Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who’s made no secret of his interest in the governor’s office.

Doherty had the support of new party chairman Mark Smiley and could have assembled a campaign team easily; he also demonstrated real fundraising prowess in his congressional bid last year. Without a real primary, Fung can now spend the next 16 months raising money and preparing for a quick two-month general-election campaign once the Democratic candidate is picked. It almost worked for Robitaille in 2010.

Then there’s Ken Block.

The Moderate Party standard-bearer received 22,146 votes in 2010, good for 6.5% of the total. Put another way, Block garnered two-and-a-half times the 8,660 votes that gave Lincoln Chafee his margin of victory over Robitaille in the election. Republicans blame Block for Robitaille’s defeat, which Block contests, but there’s little doubt he makes the math harder for centrist and center-right candidates. A January PPP poll showed Block getting between 8% and 16% of the vote depending on his competition.

As for Chafee, it’s likely nobody was more pleased about Block’s announcement than the incumbent.

If Chafee remains an independent, which still seems probable, his best-case scenario is probably another four-way field: Chafee, Raimondo/Taveras, Fung, Block. But there’s no guarantee he can turn a crowded field into another victory – PPP put him in third place, with only about 20% of the vote, under that scenario, which suggests a Democrat or Fung could be 2014’s Chafee, winning with the support of just a third of the electorate.

The silver lining for Chafee is another finding from the PPP poll. In a hypothetical three-way contest with Chafee running as the Democratic nominee against Doherty and Block, his support reached 35%. Obviously that contest isn’t going to happen – but it suggests about one in three voters are still open to casting a ballot for Chafee depending on their other options. “Landslide Linc” he ain’t, but he has a path.

Of course, the most important fact of all is that it’s only May of 2013, with a year and a half left before voters choose the next governor. But make no mistake: what happens this year will have a big impact on who takes the oath of office in January 2015.

• Related: Minority turnout surged in RI in 2012; white vote slumped (May 9)

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