PROVIDENCE — If Governor Daniel J. McKee is going to remain in office, where will his votes come from in 2022?
The map of the results from the 2018 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor offers a baseline illustration of McKee’s strongholds and weaknesses as he prepares for next year’s highly competitive Democratic gubernatorial primary.
As lieutenant governor, McKee was in the right place at the right time when Gina M. Raimondo was named US Commerce Secretary and he stepped in as governor of Rhode Island in March. But McKee almost missed that big moment. In the 2018 Democratic lieutenant governor primary, former state Representative Aaron Regunberg came within less than 2,500 votes of ousting McKee, who won 51.1 percent to 48.9 percent.
A closer look reveals Regunberg won in 21 cities and towns, while McKee took 17. But McKee, a former Cumberland mayor, rolled up big vote totals in his home base, the Blackstone Valley (including Woonsocket and Pawtucket), plus nearby towns where he’d forged relationships with fellow mayors (including North Providence and Johnston). He also did well in areas with significant Latino populations (such as Central Falls and South Providence).
Regunberg trounced McKee on Providence’s East Side, where he lives, helping him edge McKee in the capital city, 51.6 percent to 48.4 percent. And Regunberg won a range of East Bay towns (such as Barrington and Bristol), along with western and southern towns (such as Foster and South Kingstown).
Providence College political science professor Adam S. Myers, who created a map of the 2018 results, said, “What this map shows to me is that in Democratic primaries, candidates do very well in their home bases, so it would be useful to think about all the different locations they are from.”
One major difference is that 2022 won’t be a two-way race, Myers noted. At this point, it appears the Democratic primary will involve six candidates: McKee (who lives in Cumberland), Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea (North Kingstown), General Treasurer Seth Magaziner (Providence’s East Side), Matt Brown (Providence’s East Side), Helena Foulkes (Narragansett), and Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz (Pawtucket).
“This is a different ballgame,” Myers said. “When you are talking about five or six candidates, it makes electoral strategy a lot more complicated.”
The winner might only need 30 percent of the vote, he said, noting that in October Senator Samuel D. Zurier won with 31.4 percent of the vote in a five-way Democratic primary to fill the District 3 seat vacated by Gayle L. Goldin, on Providence’s East Side.
Myers said the 2018 map shows McKee was strong not only in the Blackstone Valley but also among Latino voters. For instance, he took 73.3 percent of the vote in Central Falls, a majority-Latino city, and he did well in precincts on Providence’s South Side, which also contains many Latino voters.
But in 2022, McKee will be facing Gorbea, who would be the first Latina elected as governor in New England and who has received the endorsement of the Latino Victory Fund, and Muñoz is a Latino candidate who was born in Central Falls. So, Myers said, “I don’t think there’s any chance of McKee getting 73 percent again in Central Falls.”
Also, in 2018, McKee had an ally in former Central Falls Mayor James A. Diossa, but the city’s current mayor, Maria Rivera, is not backing any candidate at this point.
“Mayor Rivera is focused on guiding her city through this pandemic and building affordable housing, a major reason for COVID’s devastating impact in CF,” a spokeswoman said. “She has not endorsed a candidate for governor at this time.”
Myers noted McKee chose former Providence City Council President Sabina Matos to become the state’s first Afro-Latina lieutenant governor (passing over Diossa). While it’s unclear how many people know McKee and Matos are working as a team, Matos is popular among Latinos in Providence, so it could help, he said.
While the 2018 map offers an idea of McKee’s strengths and weaknesses, Myers said McKee will enjoy much higher name recognition going into the 2022 race. As governor, he benefits from daily press coverage, and a Morning Consult poll found McKee was the second-most popular Democratic governor in the country, behind only Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, he noted.
But McKee will be facing several well-funded candidates, including statewide officials with higher name recognition than Regunberg possessed when he squared off against McKee. And Myers noted that some of the press coverage has focused on controversies and criticisms of McKee.
“It’s a mixed bag,” Myers said. “It seems like his administration has made a lot of missteps in the past few months.”
One of the key questions in 2022, he said, will be whether one of the Democratic candidates can mobilize the “grassroots left” in the way that Regunberg did in 2018. He noted that two progressive candidates split the vote in the Senate District 3 primary, helping Zurier secure the victory.
“Left-wing voters in a Democratic primary can have a lot of power,” Myers said. “The question this raises for me is: Is the grassroots left going to be able to get their act together and work on behalf of a single candidate?”
In an interview, Regunberg noted he beat McKee in 21 cities and towns, saying, “I was running on a pretty clearly progressive platform, so I think places we won big are places where large portions of the community are excited about that progressive vision we were putting forward.”
McKee has a base in the Blackstone Valley where people have known him for decades, Regunberg said. “That is a strength,” he said.
And McKee benefits from support from mayors in northern Rhode Island, Regunberg said. “In most places in Rhode Island, there is not really an old-school vote-getting Democratic machine operation that functions well,” he said. “But Johnston still has that, and North Providence has that to some degree.”
But Regunberg said one “under-reported” dynamic in 2018 was that the Raimondo campaign made a concerted effort to draw out more moderate and conservative voters in her Democratic primary against Matt Brown. And in the lieutenant governor’s race, he said, “Those votes went to McKee over us, certainly.”
McKee campaign spokesman Mike Trainor said the 2018 electoral map reflects McKee’s roots in the Blackstone Valley. “He was born and raised there, he was mayor of Cumberland,” he said. “As lieutenant governor, he really made sure the mayors were not ignored at the state level, as they were under a previous administration, and that has fostered good relationships.”
The map also reflects McKee’s attempts to reach out to the Latino community, including those in Central Falls and South Providence, Trainor said. “The key to that race is to continue his strong performance in the Blackstone Valley, hold your own in Providence, and go from there,” he said.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.