PROVIDENCE — Governor Daniel J. McKee pulled off a narrow victory over former CVS executive Helena Buonanno Foulkes on Tuesday in the Democratic primary for governor.
With 98 percent of polling places reporting, McKee had 32.8 percent of the vote while Foulkes had 30.1 percent.
Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, who had been in or near the lead in earlier voting, had 26.1 percent after a brutal last few weeks on the campaign trail. Former secretary of state Matt Brown had 7.9 percent, followed by Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz with 3.1 percent.
McKee will now face Republican Ashley Kalus, a healthcare executive and former Golden Gloves boxing champion, in the Nov. 8 general election.
“The general election starts now,” McKee said during his victory speech. “Let’s get ready. Round two. I didn’t bring the boxing gloves. But we’re putting them on.”
The final results were delayed in part because McKee’s hometown of Cumberland had trouble transmitting results, so memory sticks had to be delivered to the Board of Elections, spokesman Christopher Hunter said.
At first, Foulkes refused to concede, issuing a statement that said, “Democratic primary voters cast their ballots in a critical election that will decide the future of our state — thousands of those vote have yet to be counted. This election is still too close to call, and we owe it to voters to ensure that every single ballot is counted.”
But she later called McKee to concede, who refused to take her call while he was on live TV celebrating his victory, telling adviser Eva-Marie Mancuso, “That’s not going to happen. Eva, hang up on them.”
McKee later told the Globe, “One of the candidates was trying to call me. They must have saw me on TV speaking and they wanted to interrupt my speech, which I wasn’t going to do.”
Foulkes told her supporters McKee would not accept her call “and I’m unhappy about that.”
Later, her spokesperson, Audrey Lucas, tweeted, “For all the people saying @HelenaBFoulkes knew the Gov was on stage when she called him at 10:41PM: she didn’t. We believed he was going on at 11. Regardless of your political ideology, Helena is one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet. She was being gracious.”
McKee said he secured the victory because his campaign was able to “educate the people about what we have done over the past 18 months.”
“There’s not a state in the country that has been managed better than the state of Rhode Island in the last 18 months,” he said, citing high COVID-19 vaccination rates and low unemployment rates. “The people know that I’m going to raise per capita income in the state of Rhode Island. That’s my No. 1 goal.”
In June, a Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll showed Gorbea pulling into the lead at 24 percent of the vote, just ahead of McKee at 20 percent, while Foulkes was surging at 16 percent and Brown was trailing at 5 percent, followed by Muñoz at 1.4 percent. At that point, nearly a third of voters were undecided, the poll found.
But a WPRI/Roger Williams University poll in August found McKee leading with 28 percent of the vote, ahead of Gorbea at 25 percent, Foulkes at 14 percent, Brown at 8 percent, and Muñoz at 1 percent.
McKee, the former lieutenant governor, became governor in March 2021 when former Governor Gina M. Raimondo was named US commerce secretary.
During his campaign, McKee emphasized that Rhode Island’s unemployment rate matches the lowest rate on record, and he pointed out that Rhode Island has the highest rate of fully vaccinated residents in the country. And he launched what he called a “#RIMomentum Tour.”
In shaping a budget and funding priority projects, McKee benefitted from an influx of $1.1 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds and a state budget surplus of $878 million for fiscal year 2022.
McKee, a former Cumberland mayor, also benefitted from a series of significant union endorsements. For example, the Rhode Island AFL-CIO and the National Education Association Rhode Island, a politically influential teachers union, endorsed him although he has been the state’s foremost champion of mayoral charter schools.
And in perhaps the best ad of the campaign, McKee talked about how he lives with and plays cards with this mother. “Mom always said it doesn’t matter what cards you get, it’s how you play your hand,” McKee says in the ad.
But McKee received sharp criticism from his rivals over an FBI investigation of a controversial educational contract for up to $5.2 million that McKee’s administration awarded to ILO Group, a consulting firm that formed two days after McKee took office.
And Attorney General Peter F. Neronha’s office criticized McKee’s former chief of staff, Anthony J. Silva, for “very poor judgment in involving himself in a personal matter before a state regulatory agency.” But Silva was cleared of criminal activity in a probe of whether Silva attempted to influence state environmental officials over a permit to develop a piece of land in Cumberland that’s 93 percent wetlands.
Foulkes performed well in the televised debates, winning a “pop quiz” section of the WPRI-Channel 12 debate although she was the only candidate on stage who has not held state office. And US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a college roommate and friend of Foulkes’ late mother, came to Providence last weekend to back her candidacy.
But although she apologized for it, some Democrats could not forgive Foulkes for donating $500 to US Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, in 2014 when she was at CVS.
The Globe/Suffolk University poll showed Foulkes had very little support among Black and Latino voters. But in July she received an endorsement from Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza, the Latino leader of the state’s biggest city.
Also, two top former state health officials criticized McKee and backed Foulkes on the eve of the primary, with former Department of Health director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott saying, “The state cannot stay with the status quo.”
While Foulkes finished strong, Gorbea’s campaign stumbled down the homestretch. For example, Gorbea launched an attack ad accusing McKee of “pay to play” politics, but it backfired because it erroneously includes a National Review article written by a local conservative commentator that had nothing to do with the subject of the ad.
Gorbea benefitted from the endorsement of the Latino Victory Fund, giving her access to a national network at a time when she lags in campaign cash. But when the group launched an ad attacking McKee and Foulkes on her behalf, watchdogs questioned whether there was improper coordination between the PAC and her campaign and whether the attack ad should have listed the group’s top donors.
Gorbea proposed raising the state’s 7 percent corporate income-tax rate to match the 8 percent rate in Massachusetts, saying that would generate $39 million a year to “fix this housing crisis, expand pre-K to every child, and reward small businesses that create jobs here.” But that idea drew criticism from McKee, Foulkes, and Kalus.
Brown began his campaign one year ago, saying he was launching a progressive slate of candidates and declaring in a kickoff video, “We’re gonna win the whole [expletive] State House.”
Brown ran as a team alongside state Senator Cynthia Mendes, an East Providence Democrat who ran for lieutenant governor. They called for raising the minimum wage to $19 an hour, Medicare-for-All style universal healthcare, and building 10,000 “green affordable” homes.
Brown also ran for governor in 2018, losing the Democratic primary to Raimondo, who received 57 percent of the vote to his 33.5 percent.
Kalus issued a statement, saying she was honored to accept the Republican nomination for governor.
“Rhode Island needs a fighter – now more than ever,” she said. “Every day is getting harder for working families. We’re getting killed at the pump, food prices are soaring, utility bills are through the roof, and the dream of owning a home is out of reach for many. Insiders have let our state down for the last 80 years, and it’s now time for an outsider to get the job done.”
Kalus, who registered to vote in Rhode Island last year, went into primary day with $549,424 in her campaign account — more than any of the Democratic candidates, who spent large sums in a bruising primary battle, according to reports filed with the state Board of Elections seven days before the primary.