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Democratic Primary for Governor

Gina Raimondo and Matt Brown

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If you were to ask the state’s top political operatives a year ago who was most likely to give Governor Gina Raimondo a credible Democratic primary challenge, chances are they wouldn’t have said Matt Brown.

Before Brown burst back on to the state’s political scene in March – first with plans to run as an independent before ultimately entering the race as a Democrat – it appeared as though former Governor Lincoln Chafee was the one poised to take on Raimondo from the left.

Now it’s Brown, a former secretary of state and co-founder of a nonprofit that advocates for the elimination of nuclear weapons, who has positioned himself as Bernie Sanders to Raimondo’s Hillary Clinton. His promises include Medicare for all, a $15 minimum wage, driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, and the restoration of cost-of-living adjustments for retired state employees. Even Chafee has endorsed him.
So can it work?

“Primaries are a very strange animal because you don't know who is coming out to vote,” Joe Fleming, a well-known pollster and political analyst, said. “Is it traditional Democrats or is it a lot of progressives? That’s what helped Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary two years ago.”

But while Sanders beat Clinton by nearly 12 percentage points in Rhode Island in 2016, Fleming said he’s not sure Brown has proven he has the ability to “expand the universe” of voters to upset Raimondo, the state’s first female governor. He noted that Raimondo had $4 million in her campaign account as of March, which gave her the ability to run TV commercials throughout the summer.

Raimondo, of course, believes she has made a strong case to return to the State House for a second term. Rhode Island’s unemployment rate dropped from 7.8% in June 2014 to 4.3% in June 2018. She’s helped recruit major companies like General Electric and Johnson & Johnson to the state. And she pushed through a free community college program for new high school graduates.

Still, a WPRI-12/Roger Williams University poll released in March found that while 50% of voters statewide had a favorable view of Raimondo, only 37% had a positive view of her job performance. There appears to be little doubt that near-daily reports of errors with the state’s Unified Health Infrastructure Project – the computer system that was supposed to streamline state benefits programs – have taken their toll.

Although Raimondo has rarely mentioned Brown or her other Democratic primary opponent, former State Rep. Spencer Dickinson, on the campaign trail, her proposals have largely been aimed at voters on the left. In the final two weeks of July, she pledged to expand the state’s free college program to both Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island while also promising to reign in payday lenders and increase access to paid family leave.

One big question will be turnout in the primary. Four years ago, 128,000 Democrats voted in the race between Raimondo, then-Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, and Clay Pell. But with little excitement in the down-ticket matchups – with the possible exception of the lieutenant governor’s race – the campaigns will need to put together strong ground games to get people to the polls.

Fleming said Raimondo appears to be in the driver’s seat, but a strong performance from Brown could make her more vulnerable against whomever emerges from the Republican primary between Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, State Rep. Patricia Morgan, and businessman Giovanni Feroce. The winners of the two primaries will also face Moderate Bill Gilbert and Independents Joe Trillo, Luis Daniel Muñoz, and Anne Armstrong in the general election.