scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Governor Dan McKee’s winning playbook in Rhode Island

RI governor Governor Dan McKee addresses supporters at The Renaissance Hotel in Providence following the state’s primary election Tuesday.Ryan T. Conaty/Ryan T. Conaty for the Boston Gl

There’s a good chance that Governor Dan McKee doesn’t know who DJ Khaled is, but if he manages to defeat Republican Ashley Kalus in the general election, he might want to adopt “All I Do Is Win” as his inauguration theme song.

No matter what.

After winning the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor in 2014, McKee was so disliked by public employee unions because of his support for charter schools that some of them endorsed his Republican opponent. In the 2018 primary, a few of them even backed a progressive challenger.

This time around, he had plenty of unions behind him, but the elites were squarely in the Helena Foulkes’s camp.


In each case, McKee has won by running steady campaigns that accentuate his strengths (like his support among mayors across the Blackstone Valley, and somewhat surprisingly, in the cities) while hiding some of the flaws (like public speaking) that might ordinarily derail a politician.

And while the Foulkes campaign today might wish it had another week or two, and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea’s campaign probably wishes the raced ended sometime in July, McKee seemed to understand better than his opponents the date of the actual Democratic primary in Rhode Island.

No one will ever mistake Tuesday’s outcome as a decisive victory for McKee because it’s still true that two-thirds of primary voters picked someone else. But he did just enough to squeak out a victory by running a familiar playbook that has worked for him over and over again.

So rather than focusing on how well Foulkes did or on Gorbea’s collapse, it’s worth revisiting how McKee pulled this off.

He launched his campaign for governor in February surrounded by his closest political allies (most of Rhode Island’s mayors), and they mostly stuck by him for the last seven months. There was brief clash with Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena, who has complained that McKee too often panders to the left, but Polisena helped deliver more than 45 percent of the vote in his town to the governor.


East Providence, where McKee announced his campaign, came through by delivering him a significant victory. Same with North Providence, Pawtucket, and of course, his hometown of Cumberland, where he once served as mayor.

And then there was Providence, where McKee’s support for mayoral academy charter schools might be most popular of all. He is never going be loved by the wealthiest voters on the East Side, but McKee performed well enough (Gorbea actually won Providence) to hinder Foulkes, who had the endorsement of Mayor Jorge Elorza.

There wasn’t a ton of magic behind the McKee campaign, although his ad featuring his mother was easily the most memorable of the election cycle. It made it OK to feel good about McKee, even if you believed Foulkes or Gorbea might make better governors.

Now it’s on to the general election, where McKee, a sports enthusiast, might want to remind his campaign aides that no one would remember the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” if the US hockey team hadn’t won gold at Lake Placid.

He begins the race as a favorite against Kalus, the Republican newcomer to Rhode Island who intends to spend millions of dollars of her own money on her campaign. She has spent months attacking McKee over an education consulting contract the administration awarded that is now under scrutiny from law enforcement, even as she has complained that “insiders and elites” are attacking her on her outsider status and anti-abortion stance.


Like Foulkes, Kalus has also pledged to be the education governor in a state where too many students aren’t considered grade-level proficient in math and reading. She wants to expand school choice, something McKee has strongly supported in the past.

This is a winnable race for Kalus, but her campaign knows it’s an uphill battle. And if McKee follows the same playbook as he did in the primary, he might be naming DJ Khaled the state’s poet laureate by January.

Dan McGowan can be reached at Follow him @danmcgowan.