There is only one question about newly announced Democratic candidate for governor Matt Brown that matters right now: Of the 39,518 Rhode Islanders who voted for him for the same job in 2018, how many were true supporters, and how many just didn’t like the incumbent, Gina Raimondo?
If you’re to believe the Democratic establishment in this state – that includes most of the other candidates in the race and the party leadership – then Brown’s 33.5 percent performance three years ago was largely a protest vote, and now that voters have plenty of options, he doesn’t stand a chance.
But the establishment has been wrong before – like last year, when the Rhode Island Political Cooperative took out a whole bunch of longtime legislators. Brown is betting that some combination of the support he had in 2018, the momentum progressives built last year, and a full year of campaigning will help create a “revolution” in the state.
“We’re gonna win the whole [expletive] State House,” Brown, a former secretary of state, said in a snazzy video announcing his own candidacy on an informal ticket with state Senator Cynthia Mendes for lieutenant governor, and dozens of others for legislative seats at the state and local level.
Brown joins a field of high-profile candidates who already hold statewide office, including Governor Dan McKee, Treasurer Seth Magaziner, and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea. Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz is also running in the primary, and he’s got a similar progressive platform to Brown. Former CVS executive Helena Foulkes is also mulling a run.
McKee, Magaziner, and Gorbea all have distinct advantages from already being in office – and they all have a major head start on fund-raising – but Brown is going to cause them some headaches. While they’re all trying to strike the right balance of being friends with the entire Democratic tent, Brown is going to make the race a litmus test for progressivism.
Where do you stand on a $19 minimum wage? Do you support a local version of the Green New Deal? What do you think about Medicare for All?
Because the public employee unions, the building trades, and the various chambers of commerce all view Brown as a long shot, he won’t feel the same pressure as the other candidates to cater to those groups. Of course, he’s going to need more than a few thousand climate activists in his corner to win the primary.
For now, you can expect the other major candidates to attempt to ignore Brown as best they can, but there’s a reason at least some of them have included his name in their private polling.
McKee knows that he stands to benefit if it becomes a primary with a bunch of candidates trying to out-left each other, as he’ll be comfortable making the case that he’s a true firewall against higher taxes. But he hasn’t shown an ability to take a punch very well lately, and Brown will likely seek to make headlines by attacking him.
Magaziner and Gorbea have no reason to concede the progressives to Brown, and they both have stronger track records in cities with large voter turnouts, like Providence. Remember, Brown’s wins in 2018 came in the small towns of Burrillville, Glocester, Scituate, and West Greenwich, where he got a whopping 1,850 votes. Raimondo beat him in Providence by 8,800 votes.
It’s awfully difficult to win a Democratic primary in Rhode Island if you get trounced in the cities, so Brown is going to need to make some inroads in Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, and Woonsocket. Building an entire slate of candidates could help, but Brown’s team is already facing some backlash from prominent progressives, like former state Representative Aaron Regunberg.
If Brown struggles to unite the progressives, he’s going to have a difficult year. But if he keeps a lot of the vote he pulled in 2018, he’ll be a factor until the end.