PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island’s Democratic establishment is scrambling to find a suitable successor for retiring US Representative James R. Langevin as the party faces the real threat of losing a seat in the moderate 2nd Congressional District to a Republican.
Powerbrokers within the party have spent the weekend attempting to convince state Treasurer Seth Magaziner, former CVS executive Helena Foulkes, and Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea to drop out of the crowded primary for governor in favor of a run for congress, arguing that any one of them could clear the emerging field of lesser-known Democrats expected to enter the race this week.
On Sunday, Magaziner issued a statement saying he remains in the governor’s race “at this time.”
“I’m flattered by the many people who have encouraged me to consider running for Congress and I share their concern that Democrats need a strong candidate to hold the seat,” Magaziner said. “While I feel I owe it to those who have reached out to consider the possibility, I also believe strongly in our campaign to bring strong economic leadership to the governor’s office and remain in the race for governor at this time.”
On Sunday night, Foulkes issued a statement saying she will remain in the governor’s race and not run for Congress.
Foulkes said she has been “overwhelmed” by calls from Democrats urging her to run for Congress. “I share their commitment to electing a strong Democratic candidate to serve our 2nd Congressional District and will do everything in my power to make that happen, but I will not be running for Congress myself,” she said.
“I’m running for governor because I believe my executive and leadership experience will allow me to get things done for Rhode Islanders,” Foulkes said. “That is the role where I can make the most impact to improve people’s lives and unlock our state’s amazing potential.”
Gorbea had previously ruled out a run for Congress.
“There are a lot of qualified people running for governor and having this surprise announcement lends itself to the opportunity and prospect of one of those candidates deciding to run for Congress,” said former Providence mayor Joseph Paolino, a prominent Democratic fund-raiser who lost a race for congress in 1996.
To add to the intrigue, a long-time Democratic activist on Sunday confirmed that Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, the outgoing director of the state Department of Health, is “giving serious consideration” to running for the 2nd Congressional District seat. A group of Democratic women is trying to ensure that the next US representative from Rhode Island is a “powerful pro-choice woman,” the activist said.
Alexander-Scott, who led the department through two pandemic years and two administrations, announced on Jan. 12 that she would step down in two weeks.
Langevin, the first quadriplegic ever elected to Congress, announced last week that he will not seek a 12th term in office, saying that he wants to spend more time in Rhode Island. The 57-year-old was a heavy favorite to win reelection, and the rare open seat in one of the state’s two US House seats has triggered a flurry of potential candidates in recent days.
Ed Pacheco, a former state representative and Democratic Party chairman, is expected to launch his campaign as soon as Monday, and several other current and former state lawmakers are mulling bids. Omar Bah, the founder of the Refugee Dream Center, has said he is entering the race.
But powerbrokers within the party fear that a crowded Democratic primary, with no clear frontrunner, would gift-wrap the seat for a Republican such as Allan W. Fung, a popular former mayor of Cranston, home to the second-largest voter bloc in the district.
The 2nd Congressional District includes most of the western side of the state, and Warwick, Cranston, and the western half of Providence make up its largest voting blocs. The district also includes rural conservative-learning communities like Coventry, Burrillville, and Glocester.
While Democrats remain the favorites in the 2nd Congressional District, it’s “certainly not out of reach” for Republicans, Providence College political science Professor Adam S. Myers said. He noted the district became more conservative 10 years ago when the congressional district boundaries changed in what was seen as an attempt to help US Representative David N. Cicilline win his first re-election campaign in the 1st Congressional District.
In 2016, former President Donald J. Trump won 46 percent of the two-party presidential vote in the 2nd Congressional District, compared to only 37 percent in the 1st Congressional District, Myers said. In 2020, Trump won 43 percent of the two-party presidential vote in the 2nd Congressional District, compared to 35 percent in the 1st Congressional District.
The 2nd Congressional District is home to some of the state’s most right-wing legislators, such as Representative Justin Price, a Richmond Republican, and Senator Elaine Morgan, a Hopkinton Republican, he said.
While Cranston and Warwick contain the most voters, the district includes towns such as Johnston and West Warwick that are home to “Trump Democrats,” and rural areas, such as West Greenwich and Foster, that are home to “rock-ribbed Republicans,” Myers said.
Myers said many of those mentioned as potential Democratic candidates have been “relatively low-level names,” including many former or current state legislators who don’t have much campaign cash.
“So I can see why the Democratic establishment would want to coax either Magaziner or Foulkes into the House race,” he said.
But he noted Magaziner lives in the 1st Congressional District, although that doesn’t prevent him from running. And he noted Foulkes is a former CEO who might be better suited to an executive rather than a legislative role.
Myers pointed out that Langevin ran for Congress after serving as secretary of state, so it would make sense for Democrats to look to a statewide office holder such as Gorbea or Magaziner. And he said a congressional race would likely require a successful candidate to raise “a few million dollars.”
At the end of the third quarter, Magaziner continued to lead the fund-raising pack among Democrats running for governor, with $1,580,419 in his campaign account. And last week, the Foulkes campaign said it had amassed $1.07 million in campaign funds during the fourth quarter of 2021 and would end the quarter with $830,000 in cash on hand.
Party leaders first pushed House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat with $1,470,104 in his campaign account, to run for the congressional seat. But he announced Thursday that he intends to run for reelection later this year.
Another Warwick Democrat, Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey, has $250,652 in his campaign account. But on Sunday, he said he, too, intends to seek re-election this year.
“I’m humbled to see my name mentioned among potential candidates for Congress,” McCaffrey said. “I talked about it with family and supporters. But the time is not right for me to run. I have a young family and kids still in college.”
Republicans haven’t won a race for Congress in Rhode Island since Lincoln Chafee’s for Senate in 2000. He had been appointed to the job when his father, former US senator John Chafee, died in office in 1999. Lincoln easily won in 2000, but lost the seat six years later to current US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat.
The last Republican to win a seat in the US House of Representatives from Rhode Island was Ronald Machtley, who served three terms in Congress between 1989 and 1995.
Rhode Island Republican Party chair Sue Cienki said, “It is a winnable race. It is not a slam dunk for either party.” But time is short, she noted.
Cienki said it’s likely Republicans will regain control of the House this year. “So does a Democratic want to be resigned to being in the minority party?” she said. “If a Republican wins and is in the majority, that would be very beneficial to the state of Rhode Island.”
Robert Lancia, a former Republican state representative from Cranston, has already entered the race. State Senator Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican, said Saturday she has opened a campaign account as she mulls a bid for Congress.
In another development, former state Representative Stephen R. Ucci, a Johnston Democrat who was in the House for 16 years, on Sunday night said he is considering running for the 2nd Congressional District seat.
“I’m seriously looking into it,” Ucci said. “It’s a rough time in Washington, but we need folks there who are not going to be polarizing and work together on things, and that’s something I have always done.” He plans to make a decision soon.