STORY OF THE WEEK
Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee revisited his top campaign theme as he celebrated his primary victory last week. “As we said, it’s not the cards you get dealt, it’s how you play the hand,” McKee said, reprising a line from the most effective ad of the campaign, the one with his 94-year-old mother. While the governor’s card-playing reference refers to the circumstances when he took office in March 2021, it doubles as a metaphor for his narrow primary win over Helena Buonanno Foulkes and third-place finisher Nellie Gorbea. Sure, incumbents benefit from the free media coverage that comes with their office and other advantages, and organized labor provided crucial support for McKee’s campaign. Yet nearly seven in 10 Democratic primary voters chose someone other than McKee.
Foulkes was closing the gap ahead of Sept. 13, and the narrow margin of McKee’s victory (about 3,000 votes) suggests someone could have won the race with a different approach. Gorbea was considered the likely winner for much of the primary, but her support fell amid headlines about voting issues in the run-up to the election. And Foulkes’ campaign didn’t run its first ad until May 17 – more than five months after she did her initial media interview. While Foulkes was her own best advocate in interviews and debates, her campaign was unsettled, with changes in campaign managers and media consultants along the way.
Would things be different had Foulkes or Gorbea waged a more aggressive effort -- based on well-publicized news reports -- against McKee earlier in the campaign? We can only wonder. (Then again, the primary was marked by months of far fewer than usual campaign events, questionable public interest and tepid turnout.) McKee’s campaign, led by Brexton Isaacs, made the most of its hand, ramping up its efforts as more Rhode Islanders started following the race. The incumbent’s campaign ads cut through the clutter of TV spots to present McKee in an appealing light.
And as expected, McKee ran up the score in mail votes and the cities and towns to the north and east of Providence, including East Providence, Pawtucket, Johnston, North Providence, and of course, the governor’s native Cumberland. After the slow burn of the primary, Rhode Island’s Nov. 8 general election is less than eight weeks away -- the primetime of the 2022 election season is upon us.
GOT DEMOCRATIC UNITY?
First, Democrats hope to bring themselves together for a unified front. That effort got off to a bad start on primary night when Eva-Marie Mancuso, a top adviser to McKee, tried handing the governor a phone during his victory speech as Foulkes was on the line, presumably to concede and offer congrats. “No, that’s not going to happen,” McKee responded. “… Eva, hang up on them. Hang up on them.” Not putting your boss in a bad position is Politics 101, and the cringe-worthy moment became a local hot topic until McKee later took responsibility. Two days later, Foulkes and McKee had met for what the governor’s office called a positive meeting.
Based on her strong performance, the former CVS Health executive is certainly viable for a future campaign. In a statement, she vowed to remain involved: “I'm disappointed that I won't have the opportunity to serve you as governor, but in the coming weeks and months, I plan to figure out how I can do my part to move Rhode Island forward. When I have more to share, I'll be sure to do so.”
Gorbea quickly moved to endorse McKee, and Foulkes did likewise, after gaining the governor’s personal promise that his next budget proposal will extend abortion coverage to include women on Medicaid and the state employee health plan.
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