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.
Rhode Island seems to be bucking the trend this cycle—in a year in which Republicans look set to make gains, Democrat Frank Caprio and Chafee the independent are polling best in the gubernatorial contest. Why haven’t the Republicans been able to capitalize on the national anti-Democrat mood?
The Republicans aren’t as well financed here. I also think a lot of people see Caprio as a conservative Democrat and Chafee is kind of a moderate Republican. And a lot of people still have their allegiances to Chafee from the liberal side of the Republican Party, the old New England Yankee side of the party.
Caprio has raised by far the most money of any candidates. How has that helped him in the race?
I think it helped him push his primary opponent, attorney general Patrick Lynch out of the race. I was surprised by that, somewhat, but it looked like Lynch just couldn’t get the money he needed.
What has been the tone of the primary on the Republican side
So far it’s been pretty civil. Neither of these guys has raised all that much money; Moffitt especially has a hard time raising money, so I don’t know that he’s going to be a serious candidate. I don’t know that he will have the money to get on TV.
The 1st congressional district contest has made the news this year, as it does, because of the Kennedy connection. Were you surprised when Patrick Kennedy decided to retire and not run for the seat again?
No, after his dad died he was just sick of it. This is all he has done since he’s been nineteen years old. It was almost kind of liberating. Once his father was not around anymore, that was it.
He’s had some personal troubles—he’s been to rehab several times and has had some trouble staying with his sobriety. With his dad gone, he’s got more money than he could spend for the rest of his life, and I think he’d like a time-out from politics.
How is he viewed in Rhode Island?
He’s always been fairly popular; he hasn’t lost an election since his first election in 1998. But that popularity had dropped recently. I think there’s a feeling on the part of some of the voters that they were sick of these repeated relapses in his sobriety. First, there was a lot of compassion for him when he admitted he was bipolar and that he was addicted to alcohol and to painkillers. Then there came second trip to rehab and there was the car accident late at night at the capitol. And then there was another stint in rehab last year—he did leave rehab to make an important vote, but he missed a lot of votes during a very crucial time. He was in rehab in Maryland for a month, which meant he wasn’t home and that he missed the Fourth of July parade. In a small state like Rhode Island, where retail politics is still very important, people cared that he wasn’t coming home so much and that he was getting in trouble. There were reports in the Washington press that he’d been out at some taverns in D.C. and got himself into more hot water. After that, people say, ‘Wait a minute, can you do the job or not?’ I think he could have won again but it would have been a brutal race.
Did anti-incumbency play into his drop in popularity at all?
He’s a long-term incumbent, which probably plays into this, yes. Here’s a guy who’s been there since 1994 and he’s a big part of the Democratic leadership. But don’t forget this is a district that Obama won with sixty-six percent. So it’s a fairly reliable blue Democratic district.
Does the Republican candidate, John Loughlin, stand a chance in such a blue district?
He does and the reason is that the Democrats are in a four-way primary. If one candidate or another comes out of that with just thirty-six or thirty-seven percent that’s a problem. If you don’t win fifty percent of your party’s vote in the primary that means there’s a lot of pissed off people.
The way New England works is that we have these late primaries; they’re late in the cycle and it means there’s only six weeks to kiss and make up and replenish your campaign money before the general election. Loughlin’s whole challenge is whether he can move the poll numbers enough to get the national party involved with some serious money. They’ve given some money and Scott Brown did a fundraiser for him. But they have not at this point opened the coffers and said, ‘Here you go guys, here’s a million dollars.” And to win an open seat I think you need at least a million unless you’re really well known.
How well known are the four Democrats running for the district?
David Cicilline is very well known, he’s been the mayor of Providence, and the latest polls show him up and he has the most money. Bill Lynch, the former Democratic state chairman has been running second in the polls. Then you have the two anti-establishment candidates—a kid named David Segal who’s got the progressive Netroots-type folks and a businessman named Anthony Gemma. The latter was abysmal on the campaign trail the first few weeks; he had a bad launch but we will see how he does.
Have you been following any of the national coverage of the Rhode Island midterms?
The Boston Globe did a pretty good overview of the congressional race, because of Kennedy’s involvement. Other than that there hasn’t been a lot of national coverage yet. I think once the primary settles and if Loughlin can move some numbers, then there might be some attention. Put it this way, if the Republicans win this seat than they’re going to win the house. It’s like the last presidential election: The minute Virginia came in for Obama you knew it was over.
How has the local press handled the elections?
We are a one-paper state and the paper was very strong for many years. That’s no longer the case. They don’t have the people and they don’t have the “newshole.” They’re trying to do the best they can.
And nowadays if you want to do a campaign, as we’ve seen across the country, you can use social media to get in there. I think you do need TV at some point, but the fact that you’re not up with a thousand points a week doesn’t mean what it used to.
Are the newer candidates getting around the press through social media?
I think there is a group of ideological candidates who do not trust the press across the country. We haven’t see that too much here because it’s a small state and people tend to know each other. I think that there’s ways of getting around the press and that’s what you do with your television and your social media. But we haven’t seen the outright evasion like the Nevada situation here in Rhode Island.
What do you think of what you have seen this year?
I think it’s an interesting cycle. The Republicans want to nationalize these races and the Democrats are going to try to keep them local. The whole idea of what Brown did in Massachusetts is a paradigm for a lot of people. What Martha Coakley did wrong was not run ten mayor’s races.
Do you think Rhode Island Democrats will succeed in making it a local election?
They’re going to try like hell.