PROVIDENCE — Heading into this year, Daniel J. McKee was struggling to raise as much money as his likely opponents in the 2022 governor’s race, and he was starving for attention as lieutenant governor, a job where the main task is waiting to fill someone else’s shoes.
But this week, Gina M. Raimondo stepped aside with two years remaining in her term as governor to become President Joe Biden’s secretary of commerce. And on Tuesday, McKee stepped in, taking the oath of office to become Rhode Island’s 76th governor.
After six years as No. 2, McKee’s elevation to the No. 1 state job is a game changer for the 2002 election – instantly bolstering McKee’s chances of winning a full four-year term, political observers say.
“It changes everything,” said Robert A. Walsh Jr., executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island. “There is a significant difference between running as an incumbent than as one of three, four, or five Democrats who are trying to ascend to the governor’s position.”
For one thing, McKee has gone from overseeing an office with eight full-time employees and a budget of $1.1 million to being responsible for a state workforce of more than 13,800 and a total budget of $12.7 billion.
As lieutenant governor, McKee focused on small business issues and working with cities and towns, creating purpose in a position that many think of as expendable. As governor, however, he has a broad set of responsibilities, plus the bully pulpit. “It allows him to shape an agenda and run on a platform related to the actual office,” Walsh said.
He said that in the 2022 Democratic primary, McKee is likely to face two “very credible” statewide officeholders – Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea and General Treasurer Seth Magaziner – who have had broader portfolios than McKee did as lieutenant governor, plus Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza.
They also have more money in the bank than he does: McKee had $166,551 at the beginning of 2021, while Gorbea had $415,532, Elorza had $887,153, and Magaziner had $1,042,676, according to fourth-quarter reports filed with the state Board of Elections.
But McKee will be running as the sitting governor, not the lieutenant. Which means his opponents will need to convince Rhode Islanders to change course, Walsh said.
“It’s fair to say the incumbent Democrat governor becomes the front-runner, with access to national resources and the attention the office brings,” he said.
As the COVID-19 vaccine program picks up momentum, the state could see better times ahead as businesses reopen and employment levels rise, Walsh said.
“Timing is everything in politics,” he said. “If all goes according to projection, this summer will be pretty good and next summer could be great. And when people feel good, that tends to favor incumbents.”
Steven Frias, the Republican National Committeeman from Rhode Island, said McKee is relatively unknown among the general public. “And the only thing a lieutenant governor can do is hire seven of his friends and give them jobs,” he said.
So, Frias said, “Obviously, becoming a quasi-incumbent has a lot of potential upside.” But, he said, the higher-profile position brings with it some possible political risks.
While it looks like federal COVID-19 relief funds will bail out the state budget this year, Frias said McKee will have to face the state’s “significant structural deficit” next year, which will bring with it election-year scrutiny.
McKee will face questions about what he will do to improve public education in Rhode Island – particularly now that the state has taken over the struggling Providence school district, he said.
Also, McKee will be judged on the pace of the state’s economic recovery, Frias said. “Rhode Island, as we know, historically takes a long time to come out of a recession,” he said. “So there will be lots of pressure on McKee and others to try to get the Rhode Island economy back to even where it was pre-pandemic.”
Frias said he does not know who the Republican nominee for governor will be in 2022. Familiar names such as Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung, House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi, and Watchdog RI founder Ken Block have been mentioned, but he noted that other GOP candidates have emerged late in the game.
Providence College political science Professor Adam S. Myers also thinks McKee’s move into the governor’s office dramatically changes the dynamics of the 2022 governor’s race. “That sort of puts him in the driver’s seat,” he said.
One of the biggest benefits will be a boost in name recognition, Myers said. In the year ahead, McKee will be in the spotlight as Rhode Island continues rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine and reopening segments of the economy. “Assuming that goes well, he is going to get credit for that,” he said.
McKee is already making decisions that could have implications in the 2022 election, Myers said.
For example, McKee has been at odds with teacher unions as the driving force behind mayoral academies, a form of publicly funded charter schools, but he also has pushed to prioritize teachers for the COVID-19 vaccine, and that could prove to be a “shrewd political move,” Myers said.
Also, McKee has said his proposed budget won’t raise taxes and will continue phasing out the automobile excise tax. That’s at odds with calls from groups, such as the Rhode Island Working Families Party, to raise the income tax rate on the state’s richest residents. But Myers said those positions are in line with the priorities of former House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, a conservative Democrat who championed the car tax phaseout.
McKee is considered less progressive than Elorza, Gorbea, and Magaziner, and he will be running in a primary at a time when the Democratic electorate is moving to the left, Myers said. He may decide to stay in the “center lane,” hoping that Magaziner, Gorbea, and Elorza split the progressive vote, Myers said, though it’s still not clear who his main opponents will be.
North Providence Mayor Charles A. Lombardi, a McKee supporter, said becoming governor is bound to be a boon for McKee’s chances in 2022.
“He has the opportunity to show everyone who he is and what he is capable of doing,” Lombardi said, suggesting that the 69-year-old McKee could end up winning a pair of four-year terms. “He could be there for 10 years.”