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Poll: McKee, Gorbea in tight race for Rhode Island governor; many voters still undecided

The Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council hosted a gubernatorial candidate forum on Thursday, May 5, at the Crowne Plaza Providence-Warwick hotel. Moderator Steph Machado of WPRI Channel 12, right, was the forum moderator. The candidates are, from left: Dr. Luis Daniel Mu–oz, incumbent Governor Daniel McKee, Republican candidate Ashley Kalus, Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, former CVS executive Helena B. Foulkes, and former secretary of state Matt Brown.MARK STOCKWELL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

PROVIDENCE — Governor Dan McKee is in a statistical tie with Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, but more than a third of likely voters are still undecided with four months until the Democratic primary, according to poll released Tuesday by WPRI-12 and Roger Williams University.

The survey of 400 likely Democratic primary voters shows McKee at 25 percent, Gorbea at 23 percent, former secretary of state Matt Brown at 7 percent, former CVS executive Helena Foulkes at 6 percent, and health care advocate Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz at 2 percent. The poll shows 37 percent of voters are still undecided. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.


“These numbers show a race that’s up in the air with lots of undecided voters,” said Joe Fleming, whose firm Fleming & Associates conducted the poll. “This is the starting point for the governor’s race.”

Fleming said the survey will be welcome news for Gorbea, who maintains that her internal polling has her leading the race, and bad news for McKee, who has struggled to build momentum since he was sworn in as governor 14 months after former governor Gina Raimondo joined the Biden administration as secretary of commerce.

McKee’s job approval rating is just 44.5 percent among likely primary voters, which suggests he isn’t benefiting from the traditional advantage that incumbents would have in a primary. By comparison, Biden’s approval rating is 59.8 percent, according to the poll.

“Governor Dan McKee has worked tirelessly to achieve a stronger economy for everyone,” said campaign manager Brexton Isaacs. “With unemployment below 4 percent and Rhode Island leading the northeast on economic recovery, Governor McKee is working to sustain our state’s economic momentum. While he doesn’t put much stock in polls, today’s numbers are a clear sign that Rhode Islanders recognize that Governor McKee is fighting to raise Rhode Islanders’ incomes, support small businesses, and strengthen education. He looks forward to engaging directly with voters over the coming months while continuing to deliver strong, steady leadership for the people of Rhode Island.”


McKee and Gorbea, who have each won two statewide elections, have far more name recognition than the other Democrats in the race, but Gorbea is slightly ahead among those who said they were very likely to vote in the primary. McKee leads among voters who said they were somewhat likely to vote or that there was a 50-50 chance that they would vote. Individuals who said they are not very likely to vote or are unsure if they’ll vote were excluded from the poll.

“This poll shows that this race is a dead heat,” said Dana Walton, a spokeswoman for Gorbea. “Nellie Gorbea is well-positioned to win the Democratic nomination for governor because Democrats know she’s been an effective Secretary of State and they like her. Despite being governor for more than a year, Dan McKee is unpopular and in a far weaker position than a sitting governor should be. Rhode Islanders want to fix the housing crisis, strengthen public education, and tackle climate change—and Nellie Gorbea is the candidate for the governor who is best able to deliver on these urgent priorities.”

With 37 percent of voters undecided, Fleming stressed that it’s still anyone’s race.

As the primary nears, all of the candidates are likely to increase their name recognition. Foulkes, the best-funded candidate in the race, began her effort to introduce herself to voters Tuesday with a 60-second biographical television commercial that pitches herself as the candidate who can get big things done as governor.


Brown, who lost a Democratic primary to Raimondo in 2018, has positioned himself as the most-progressive candidate in the race, supporting efforts to raise taxes on the wealthy, implement a Medicare-for-all-type health insurance program, and pass a local version of the Green New Deal.

On the issues, 36 percent of likely primary voters said the cost of living is most important, followed by health care (18.2 percent), education (12.8 percent), and taxes (11.8 percent). COVID-19 and safety polled in the single digits.

The Democratic primary is Sept. 13.

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