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Monday, September 19, 2022

The 2022 Democratic Primaries in review

The Co-op Overreached

By Samuel Gifford Howard

Co-op leader Matt Brown whooped in the Governor's race
and come up way short on his statewide promises
We still have some recounts, but it’s mostly wrapped. Let’s get into it.

The RI Political Co-op promised a whole new government. It promised a slate of 50 candidates. It promised to change RI politics.

None of that happened. The Co-op largely failed to bring anyone but the orgs they have the closest relationships with on board with their candidates. 

They actively antagonized many of the groups in Climate Jobs RI, Rhode Island’s blue-green alliance that’s been very successful with winning action on climate policy (including the Act on Climate). 

By my count, only one Co-op candidate got an endorsement from a union (if you’re not the Carpenters and you endorsed a Co-op candidate, please let me know).

The question after the Senate District 3 special in 2021 was always if the Co-op would be able to do as well with its attention spread out over a promised 50 races and two statewide candidates. 

Now we know our answer. Out of 24 of its contested Democratic primaries in the General Assembly, the Co-op won just three. 

Barring any general election wins or losses (which are possibilities), the Co-op has effectively traded a state senator for a state representative, reducing its already scant legislative influence.

Matt Brown proved to be a bad ticket leader, as he did not appreciably outperform polling, and significantly underperformed Cynthia Mendes’ vote share (though the dynamics were significantly different in those races). Mendes’ vacated seat was also lost. 

There should be a debate about what the strategy was here: should Mendes have lead the ballot as the gubernatorial candidate? Should they have avoided the governor’s race entirely and put more resources into the LG race? Should Mendes have remained in place to hold that Senate seat?

Some of this might’ve been coalitional and personal politics. It’s possible the whole edifice of the Co-op would’ve fallen apart if it failed to support Brown’s run for governor. Mendes may not have wanted to stick around as a senator.

How or whether the Co-op reflects and recovers remains to be seen. I think there are many who would rather they go away. For myself, I think the Co-op also appears to be excellent at creating an organized space for newcomers to politics, especially women, to come and join a supportive community. That’s a pretty important function. 

My hope is that Tuesday’s defeats, instead of hardening into a “stabbed in the back” narrative, force a reflection within the Co-op on why the groups that should be the closest with them decided to support so many other candidates.

It Was Actually a Fairly Typical Night for Progressives in the Assembly

Tuesday was mostly a wash with maybe some slight gains for progressives in the House Democratic caucus. This is more typically how progressive advances have been made in Rhode Island, slowly but surely. The great number of Co-op losses didn’t really change that math (in no small part because they primaried quite a few progressive or progressive-aligned candidates). There were a few pickups in the House, some losses, and a bunch of races where I would say the result is “no change” even though the individuals have swapped out.

In a lot of ways, this was a return to form for RI’s progressives. Some incremental gains marked by some really tough losses. Progressive victories have long been pretty uneven, and 2022 was no exception.

The Democratic Party in RI is moving steadily leftward. Not fast enough for some people, but also not as fast as its opponents would suggest. Its next generation is already more liberal than their predecessors, and its leadership is amenable to pretty left-wing legislation (see, Act on Climate, and the public production of housing pilot).

In the Mattiello-Ruggerio era, it was easy to say that the Senate was the more progressive of the two chambers. In the Shekarchi-Ruggerio era, it’s much less clear, and both chambers are still more progressive than they were.

Progressives Lack Strong Statewide Standard-Bearers

I think there have only been two clearly agreed-upon progressive statewide primary candidates in contested races the entire time I’ve been writing about politics: Frank Ferri and Aaron Regunberg. Both ran for lieutenant governor and lost to Dan McKee.

Matt Brown and David Segal (I’ll classify him as “statewide” for the purposes of this) had significant flaws. Brown and the Co-op had angered a lot of progressives. Brown was also out of the state for roughly twelve years before returning in 2018. Segal had flown under the radar for roughly the same period of time. 

National progressive figures went heavily for them, but really did not seem to understand or care about the dynamics at play on the ground here in RI. I say this as someone who worked for Segal in 2010, who advocated for him way more vociferously than I should’ve (in retrospect) to run again in 2012, and has appreciated his work since: I did not understand why he was in this race or what the theory of victory was.

There is a notable lack of progressive candidates capable of contesting statewide races and willing to be forthright in their progressivism and capable of commanding the undivided support of progressives.

What there are are a lot of soft progressive candidates. Nellie Gorbea is an example. Seth Magaziner could be considered it as well. Arguably, Helena Foulkes was a soft progressive. And plenty of other candidates have positioned themselves in that manner in the past.

But that’s not good enough. There are almost no example of executive office being held by an outright progressive. No firebrand progressive holds a mayorship (Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza is not strongly embraced by most progressive groups). Progressives need to think about where they could build a model of governance that could provide a platform for future statewide runs.

That said, I do think Gregg Amore should count. If a union-backed teacher, a reliably liberal vote in the House, who is full-throated in his support of publicly-financed elections isn’t a progressive, than who is? Amore has the potential to become RI’s version of John Fetterman or J.B. Pritzker; a big dude with progressive policy positions.

Most Surges Appear to Have Come Too Late

There’s a debate to be had about whether if there had been less early voting or another week of campaigning if Foulkes would’ve won. Segal’s climb to second place didn’t put him within striking range of Magaziner. A number of down ballot races resulted in the winner of the primary day vote losing on mail ballots and early voting.

As more voters shift to early voting, the last two weeks become harder to win in. But so many groups have not managed to take this into account, I believe I saw one organization release its full of list of endorsed candidates the Monday before the primary! Helena Foulkes got a key endorsement that same day as well.

Under any new set of rules, there are going to be periods of adjustment, and managing the clock has become that much more important with widespread mail balloting and early voting. Campaigns and endorsing organizations will need think much more deeply about how to influence those sorts of voters, who might have already voted before much of the electorate has even tuned in.

Media Played a Role, Even If They’re Loathe to Admit It

One of the more fascinating sagas was the WPRI “red box” story about Gorbea and whether having a page that transmitted messages and suggested how to use them counted as coordination with Super PACs. The focus on it fundamentally undercut Gorbea’s early work to establish herself as an anti-corruption candidate, and it became a sore spot for her, in part due to how vociferously the legal counsel for the Campaign Legal Center criticized her in the piece. 

Of course, McKee had a similar web page that functioned the exact same way, it just was far less transparent in what it was supposed to do. The result is that, even though it was a sneakier way of doing it, McKee received almost no criticism for engaging in a very similar practice. He had more plausible deniability.

This was a framing choice for WPRI, and I don’t think it’s unfair to argue it had an impact. They could’ve run a story with a “Gorbea, McKee may be coordinating with outside spending groups” which would’ve been accurate as well. Nothing they ultimately said is inaccurate, but they almost completely let McKee off the hook for doing fundamentally the same thing – which was having a webpage that transmits messaging and promotional material.

Similarly, speculation about who was in the lead for what races always has an impact. There is a certain value in this, as voters often decide who to cast their vote for off of who seems able to win. But the media can’t just play disinterested observers here, this is a case where making observations can actually impact the outcomes. Especially early on, media really should’ve been much more cautious about declaring anyone a frontrunner in races that lacked polling.

Finally, restricting who can come to debates is an ongoing problem, especially for WPRI, which is bound by its owner Nexstar’s rules on this. Media can’t simultaneously hold up debates as one of the most important exercises in our democratic process and then bar candidates from attending those debates. There’s a level of hypocritical gatekeeping there which is just unconscionable. Luis Daniel Muñoz may have done himself no favors by focusing on it, but he had a strong complaint.

Coordination Failures

There were significant failures to coordinate up and down the ballot. Perhaps the most notable was in Providence, where Nirva LaFortune and Gonzalo Cuervo appear to have split the party’s left wing vote, allowing Brett Smiley to win the primary and therefore the mayorship.

The problem with coordination failures like that is that it’s not like everyone acts with perfect information about how everything will occur and makes a decision based off that. Organizations often act in their perceived best interests. No one behaved completely irrationally in this, but they also never failed to act in their self-interest, even when that ultimately worked against them.

Those failures were elsewhere, too. Anti-McKee forces were unable to unite behind a single candidate. The race for lieutenant governor (though far less important) was divided between three candidates. And coordination failures at the General Assembly level by progressive orgs was a huge part of the story in the Co-op’s long list of defeats.

Stop Trying to Primary Sam Bell From the Right

Sen. Bell annoys a lot of people, especially people who would otherwise be his allies. But Bell is well-liked by his constituents. That he handily saw off Councilor Jo-Ann Ryan in 2020 should’ve been enough to cement the idea that he wasn’t going to be dislodged easily. However, redistricting seems to have convinced some people to give it another go with outgoing Councilor David Salvatore, who was similarly trounced.

Bell simply isn’t going to be ousted by someone to his right. Bell is a good campaigner and his constituents mostly like him, despite his terrible record in terms of production as a legislator. The only way I can imagine him being ousted is if someone from his left primaries him on the platform of actually passing left-wing legislation. But that candidate doesn’t exist; because they have to be 1. more left than Sam Bell, 2. willing to run against Sam Bell, and 3. electorally viable (i.e., not a kook).

Bell’s opponents, such as party leadership and unions, wasted resources trying to oust him, and they could’ve used those elsewhere. In a night full of them, it was truly the most pointless primary.

Socialists Continue to Make Inroads in Providence

Providence’s West End continues its place as the Red End (yes, I will continue to try to make this happen), having elected its third politician endorsed by the Providence Democratic Socialists of America, Enrique Sanchez. With Bell’s hold, Providence DSA will likely have three members in the General Assembly (Sanchez, Bell, and Rep. David Morales). Further west, Miguel Sanchez (Enrique’s brother) also won his primary, meaning that going into 2023, DSA will have backed two city councilors.

Notably, the only DSA-backed candidate in a contested primary who lost was Kinverly Dicupe in Pawtucket’s House District 62. Dicupe was a Co-op candidate.

The Movement for Instant-Runoff Voting Is About To Start

Sen. Zurier has his study commission, Rep. Kislak her legislation, and the national reform money has already paid their lobbyists. In the wake of these primaries, with so many results coming down to plurality wins, the 2023-24 session is going to see a concerted push to get instant-runoff voting approved, at least for primaries.

I am deliberately saying “instant-runoff voting” here instead of “ranked-choice voting”. Let me make the prediction outright: no one will arrive at any other form of ranked-choice voting. Single transferrable vote won’t be considered, because it requires parties to be included and a whole rearrangement of how districts work. 

None of the more complex counting systems (Round-Robin voting, Bottom-Two Runoff aka “BTR”, Risk-Avoiding Majority Preference Ranked Choice Voting or “RAMP-RCV”) that produce better outcomes will be used, because they’ll undermine faith in elections due to the relative complexity of the math involved.

I have strong doubts about how seriously local advocates of ranking are going to engage with the attendant issues that would arise from instant-runoff. And that makes me worried we are going to end up with a system that causes a bunch of issues, produces some counter-intuitive results, and will effectively be abandoned by voters shortly after its adoption, who will revert to just voting for one candidate and skipping the rest, returning us to a plurality system.

We Need to Talk About How Primaries Are Failing Us

I’ve read a fair amount of social media chatter about the low turnout in the primary, and what a problem this was.

Here’s the thing, these are supposed to be party primaries. They are a reform of party conventions (themselves a reform). They are supposed to pick parties’ nominees for the general, not be the general. Most voters do actually turnout for the general. Unfortunately, in RI, a lot of voters don’t get to make much of a meaningful choice when they turn out. 

Around a third of the seats in both the RI House and Senate won’t have general elections this year. Only about 45% of those chambers’ seats will have both a Republican and a Democrat. And of those, only a dozen or so are truly competitive seats, where the outcome won’t be basically pre-determined.

This means primaries, which are supposed to be about selecting party nominees, are acting as de facto general elections. This is bad. It’s bad for voters, it’s bad for our politics, and it’s resulting in a crisis of representation.

You would think folks would want to meet voters where they are, at the general. Instead, almost all the proposed methods of reform, from top two nonpartisan primaries (which are neither nonpartisan nor primaries) to instant-runoff voting are not about giving voters meaningful choices at the general. Instead, they put all the meaningful work into primaries and also make them much more complex. Two years ago, I called for ending primaries. I stand by that (although in retrospect, I could improve that post).

Our legislatures are failing to represent us, and that’s what makes primaries so important and also what makes them so excruciating.

Looking forward to 2024.