After twenty-five years at The Providence Journal, Rhode Island reporter Scott Mackay moved to the state’s NPR affiliate, WRNI, in 2009, to work as the station’s chief political analyst. With the traditionally blue state hosting its gubernatorial and congressional primaries Tuesday, Mackay spoke with CJR assistant editor Joel Meares about a potential Democratic gain in the governor’s race, and the fall of the last Kennedy left standing. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
How would you describe the political culture of Rhode Island?
Rhode Island’s an old eastern seaboard place; our political culture was forged heavily by the European immigration just after and before the Civil War, up through the 1920s and 1930s. It’s been a real ethnic laboratory for different groups and now we have an emerging group of Latino folks. It’s mainly been an urban industrial Democratic state. It’s a one-party Democratic legislature and this is true in Massachusetts also, which demographically is a lot like Rhode Island. However, Republicans have controlled the governorship for twenty-one of the last twenty-five years. A lot of times voters like to give a check, to put a Republican governor in there to see if they can check the Democratic legislature. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Do you think that’s how they will vote this time?
I am not so sure. I think it might go back to Democratic or to independent. We have a former Republican, Lincoln Chafee, who used to be a U.S. senator, running for governor as an independent.
How have independents fared in Rhode Island historically?
Not that well. Rhode Island’s pretty much been a party state. However, New England has an independent heritage. In Maine, for instance, there have been two independent governors in the last twenty years and they’ve got another one running this time, and Vermont has an independent senator. What’s been happening in Rhode Island is that as the distaste for both parties has grown, you see a huge increase in the number of voters who call themselves independents or unaffiliated. About forty-eight percent of our voters now are registered in neither party. People are basically upset with the kind if inside party people we’ve been getting on both sides. You’ve seen some of this nationally in the primaries.
Is it more sharply a move away from Democrats?
It’s a move away from Democrats but it’s also a move away from Republicans. What’s happened in New England is that as the Republican Party has become more centered in the south, with southern leaders and more conservative fundamentalist Christians, New England Republicans have been battered. In fact, there’s not one Republican from New England in the U.S. House. It’s the first time in the history of the Republic that’s happened.
What is the key issue for Rhode Islanders in the governor’s race?
Obviously, it’s the economy—we have the nation’s fourth highest unemployment rate. Everybody’s out there with a plan to jumpstart the economy and the voters are going to have to pick out which one they think is credible. The state budget has been out of whack for a long time and there are some candidates who are saying they want to cut taxes. But Chafee has actually called for a small tax increase on in-state taxes, he wants a one percent increase on items that are not currently taxed under the state sales tax. He would use that money to help defray the increase on property taxes, which are pretty onerous in this part of the country.
Moffitt’s a traditional conservative Republican. He’s against same-sex marriage and abortion, and I think he’s trying to connect with some of the religious conservatives. He’s a former state representative and says he wants to cut spending. But his challenger, John Robitaille, is basically the establishment Republican candidate. He should win the primary. He is also a traditional conservative Republican—he’s against gay marriage, he wants to cut taxes, he’s upset about the legislature, he thinks public employee unions have too much power, he’s a fairly bread-and-butter conservative.
Will those bread-and-butter conservative stands play in a general election in a blue state like Rhode Island?
I think this year is going to really focus on economic issues. The state is fairly liberal on social issues, it always has been, even though it’s the most Catholic state in the country as a percentage of the voters. It’s fairly like the rest of New England; it’s fairly blue by most measures.