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What does Nellie Gorbea need to do to win the Rhode Island governor’s race?

Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea in 2017.
Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea in 2017.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

One of the worst-kept secrets in Rhode Island politics is finally out: Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea has launched her campaign for governor.

There’s still a lot of time between now and next year’s Democratic primary, but Gorbea is the first of the expected top-tier candidates to formally announce that she has entered the race. Incumbent Governor Dan McKee, state Treasurer Seth Magaziner, and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza are all expected to join the field. Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz has already declared his candidacy.

So what factors will help her win, and what might work against her?

There is only one reason someone declares for governor a full year before they can even begin collecting signatures to get their name on the ballot: money. Gorbea had $546,000 in her campaign account as of April 30, which placed her third behind Magaziner ($1.3 million) and Elorza ($955,000) among likely Democratic candidates for governor. McKee was sitting on $450,000 from when he was lieutenant governor, but he is likely to see his fund-raising numbers skyrocket now that he’s the incumbent.

Jumping into the race so early gives Gorbea more opportunities to win over some of the national women’s groups and tap into Latino fund-raising circles around the country, according to veteran pollster Joe Fleming. That should give her enough money to compete, which will help boost her name recognition in a crowded field. It doesn’t hurt that one of her top supporters has experience running for governor: former Providence mayor Angel Taveras.

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If she can raise somewhere between $2 million and $3 million for the Democratic primary, she’ll have a great chance to turn heads when the voters start paying attention sometime next year. She holds degrees from Princeton and Columbia, and is a policy wonk at heart, so you can expect her to perform well during debates. At a time when housing is one of the biggest challenges facing the state, she likely has the most direct experience on the issue of any potential candidate, having led Housing Works Rhode Island for more than five years before she ran for secretary of state.

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One more thing that can’t be underestimated: Gorbea is good at campaigning. Fleming noted that she was considered an underdog during her first run for secretary of state in 2014, but she ran a smart campaign (with memorable commercials) and upset Guillaume de Ramel in the Democratic primary.

What could help Gorbea the most, though, is if her competition changes before the filing deadline next year. As with any candidate, her chances of winning key areas grow stronger if other big-name candidates — like Elorza, for example — bow out.

If Elorza picks up momentum in the race and cuts into her support — especially among Latinos — Gorbea will have major problems.

Elorza is the two-term incumbent mayor of Providence, and he has plenty of money in the bank, but he’s still very much an outsider in the eyes of Rhode Island’s Democratic powerbrokers. Gorbea needs him to stay that way.

Gorbea also faces the same challenge that everyone not named McKee will face over the next year. If McKee is cutting the ribbon on every business that is reopening post-pandemic and shelling out millions of dollars in federal stimulus money, he’ll be more highly visible than any other candidate running.

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And if the economy rebounds from COVID-19, it’s possible that voters will have no reason to send him packing, according to Fleming. That puts all of the candidates in the awkward position of wanting him to succeed so the state recovers while also needing him to fail so they can win the primary.

Now that she’s declared her candidacy, Gorbea will need to spend the rest of this year convincing local organizers and union leaders that she’s their best choice.

There’s still time — McKee, Magaziner, and Elorza don’t seem poised to roll out their campaigns with signature endorsements right now. In fact, a lot of the biggest donors and activists appear to be hedging their bets, or at least waiting for the field to take shape.

And so are voters.


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.