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Insurrection, election doubts, and Trump: Why 1,500+ voters in Rhode Island left the GOP

Analysis shows a higher percentage of loss in coastal upper-income communities

Voters were directed to cast ballots inside Lincoln Town Hall on the first day of early voting in Rhode Island last fall.
Voters were directed to cast ballots inside Lincoln Town Hall on the first day of early voting in Rhode Island last fall.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE -- The chairwoman of the state Republican Party is trying to be optimistic.

Last month, more than 1,500 Rhode Island voters -- some in every city and town in the state -- dropped their Republican registration, nearly all on or after the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol on Jan. 6. Most were from the suburbs and upper-income, coastal communities.

While it’s not unusual for voters to disaffiliate from a political party after a general election, the already small R.I. Republican Party lost a bigger percentage of its voters in January than the Democrats.

GOP Chairwoman Sue Cienki said she’s heard a variety of reasons.


People left because they were turned off by former president Donald J. Trump, particularly women living in the suburbs.

They didn’t like the violence at the Capitol, by Trump supporters and far-right extremists. And the constant drumbeat of “voter fraud” trumpeted at the national level led to disillusionment at the local level.

“Some say, I’m never going to vote again because they don’t believe in elections,” Cienki said Thursday.

To be sure, party affiliation doesn’t necessarily translate into votes along party lines. In Rhode Island, where there are three times as many registered Democrats as Republicans, sometimes there isn’t even a GOP candidate in the race. (There are 311,413 registered Democrats, 102,288 Republicans, and 303,809 unaffiliated voters.) Some who register as a Democrat or a Republican may be doing so just to vote in one primary or the other.

However, an analysis of data released by the secretary of state’s office at the Globe’s request shows a geographical shift of Republican voters.

Last month, Jamestown, East Greenwich, Richmond, Charlestown, South Kingstown, and Barrington had the highest percentage of voters dropping their Republican registration.

Jamestown was the highest, at 2.2 percent, followed by 2.1 percent in East Greenwich and 2 percent in Charlestown.


Adam Myers, associate professor of political science at Providence College, pointed out that all of those towns, except for Richmond, are upper-income, coastal communities “with lots of old-school, Main Street Republican voters” who are more likely to be anti-Trump. The towns in the western part of Rhode Island had a lower percentage of Republican disaffiliation, he said.

Richmond is represented by Republican legislator Justin Price, who faced demands from Democrats to resign after he marched to the US Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection and made false claims that Antifa and Black Lives Matter protesters caused the deadly violence.

“Yes I marched to the capitol with 1 million peaceful patriots Unfortunately ANTIFA/BLM infiltrated our peaceful movement and they got caught in the act,” Price wrote in a tweet he later deleted.

There was no evidence that Price entered the Capitol or took part in the violence, and state and local GOP officials defended his attendance. Still, Richmond -- traditionally a Republican stronghold -- lost 1.8 percent of its Republican voters in January, the fourth-highest rate of all Rhode Island communities. Exeter and Hopkinton, which Price also represents, lost 1.3 percent.

Although the suburban cities of Warwick and Cranston lost the highest number of Republican voters in January -- 156 in Warwick and 119 in Cranston -- that represented 1.5 percent and 1.3 percent, respectively, of their registered voters.

Nonetheless, Myers said those numbers should worry Republican leaders.

“The GOP has been struggling with suburban women for a while now, and Jan. 6 didn’t help,” Myers said.


Cienki said the state leaders are looking at how to appeal to the voters they’ve lost.

For suburban women, they’re focusing on school choice, especially following a difficult year where schools have been in disarray, she said. The Republican Party has been making inroads in urban areas, such as Central Falls, by focusing on the needs of small businesses, she said.

Cienki said she’s optimistic, because Republican legislators didn’t lose seats in the General Assembly, and even outperformed Trump. GOP challenger Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung took on the powerful House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, and beat him.

“When we focus on local and state issues, they can perform well,” Cienki said.

The R.I. GOP needs voters -- but it also needs good candidates. Cienki is concerned about people who’ve left the party because they don’t believe in the election process anymore.

Cienki said she believed the election was fair, but admitted that the local party struggled to break through the conspiracy theories and misinformation about mail balloting and how the votes were tallied.

“We have to talk about how do we make system better for everyone, so win, lose or draw, you have faith” in the outcome, Cienki said.

She’s urging voters to stay in the Republican Party and work to improve the system. “If Republicans are upset, get involved in your city and town,” Cienki said. “If you’re leaving, what does it prove? ... Don’t be an armchair complainer.”


Did Trump’s insistence there was voter fraud end up hurting local Republicans?

“I’m not President Trump, we are different people,” Cienki said. “My message, and what I am concerned about, is what happens here.”

Providence College’s Myers said it’s “wishful thinking” for state and local Republican officials to escape the national direction of the party.

“I don’t think most voters can distinguish between the national and the state GOP. Most voters go based off the national party predispositions,” Myers said. “Unfortunately, this has a lot to do with national media being what a lot of people pay attention to, and local media is falling on hard times. And that creates a challenge for state and local parties.”

Even as party leaders look at local issues, the national schism between the supporters of Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will determine the direction of the Republican Party, Myers said. And it’s too soon to know what that will mean in Rhode Island, he said.

Here are the Republican Party changes statewide and by municipality in January:

Statewide: 1,515 voters dropped their Republican registration. 1,423 became unaffiliated, and 92 became Democrats.

Barrington: 37 Republicans switched to unaffiliated; 1 switched to the Democratic Party

Bristol: 35 became unaffiliated; 1 became a Democrat

Burrillville: 27 unaffiliated, 1 became a Democrat

Central Falls: 2 unaffiliated

Charlestown: 28 unaffiliated, 2 became Democrats

Coventry: 63 unaffiliated, 4 became Democrats

Cranston: 113 unaffiliated, 6 became Democrats

Cumberland: 52 unaffiliated, 3 became Democrats


East Greenwich: 48 unaffiliated, 2 became Democrats

East Providence: 42 unaffiliated, 3 became Democrats

Exeter: 14 unaffiliated, 1 became a Democrat

Foster: 10 unaffiliated

Glocester: 9 unaffiliated

Hopkinton: 20 unaffiliated

Jamestown: 15 unaffiliated, 2 became Democrats

Johnston: 44 unaffiliated, 5 became Democrats

Lincoln: 27 unaffiliated, 1 became a Democrat

Little Compton: 8 unaffiliated, 1 became a Democrat

Middletown: 23 unaffiliated, 3 became Democrats

Narragansett: 31 unaffiliated

New Shoreham: 1 unaffiliated

Newport: 28 unaffiliated, 1 became a Democrat

North Kingstown: 53 unaffiliated, 3 became Democrats

North Providence: 37 unaffiliated, 4 became Democrats

North Smithfield: 25 unaffiliated, 1 became a Democrat

Pawtucket: 36 unaffiliated, 2 became Democrats

Portsmouth: 48 unaffiliated, 2 became Democrats

Providence: 66 unaffiliated, 15 became Democrats

Richmond: 26 unaffiliated

Scituate: 29 unaffiliated, 2 became Democrats

Smithfield: 36 unaffiliated, 2 became Democrats

South Kingstown: 55 unaffiliated

Tiverton: 26 unaffiliated, 3 became Democrats

Warren: 15 unaffiliated, 1 became a Democrat

Warwick: 145 unaffiliated, 11 became Democrats

West Greenwich: 15 unaffiliated

West Warwick: 45 unaffiliated, 4 became Democrats

Westerly: 49 unaffiliated, 3 became Democrats

Woonsocket: 45 unaffiliated, 2 became Democrats

Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.