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In Rhode Island, a congressional race with national implications

Though New Hampshire and other states opted for more conservative and pro-Trump candidates in this year’s primaries, in Rhode Island moderate Republican Allan Fung has a better chance of turning a blue seat red.

Republican Allan W. Fung (left) is running for Rhode Island's Second Congressional District seat, while Republican Don Bolduc is running for a New Hampshire US Senate seat.Handouts

PROVIDENCE — In the Republican primaries on Sept. 13, conservative voters in New Hampshire backed MAGA candidates who amplified former president Donald Trump’s rhetoric, even though Trump did not formally endorse any of them. Senate candidate Don Bolduc, for example, echoed claims that the 2020 election was stolen and suggested the COVID-19 vaccine contained microchips, declaring, “The only chip that’s going in me is a Dorito.”

In Rhode Island, which held its primaries the same night, Republicans pinned their hopes on a more moderate Second Congressional District candidate, popular former Cranston mayor Allan W. Fung, who rejects claims of a stolen election and whose political Achilles’ heel may be that he wore a hat with Trump’s name on it to Trump’s inauguration.

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The two New England states are worlds apart politically. In New Hampshire, the Republican Party controls the offices of governor, secretary of state, attorney general, and both chambers of the state legislature. In Rhode Island, Democrats dominate, holding all of the state’s general offices and both chambers of the state legislature. The only Republican from New England in the US House or Senate is Maine Senator Susan Collins.

“New Hampshire has a much more robust, well-organized, and ideological Republican constituency,” said Tufts University political science professor Eitan D. Hersh, a Providence native. Some people even move there for ideology, he said, citing the “Free Staters” drawn to New Hampshire for its deep vein of conservatism and “Live Free or Die” motto.

But analysts say that while the Granite State has a deeper conservative base, the Ocean State gives the GOP a better chance of turning a blue seat red on Nov. 8.

Former Cranston, R.I., mayor Allan Fung greeted supporters at his campaign kickoff event on April 26, 2022, at the Varnum Memorial Armory in East Greenwich, R.I. Fung, a two-time Republican gubernatorial candidate in Rhode Island, is running for the state's seat in Congress being vacated by Democrat Jim Langevin. David Goldman/Associated Press

In June, a Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll found Fung leading all of his potential Democratic rivals. A super PAC aligned with House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy is pouring $1 million into the race, Axios reported, calling Fung “the golden boy of the GOP’s candidate slate this year.” And the Cook Political Report lists Rhode Island’s Second Congressional District race as a “toss up” while placing the New Hampshire Senate race in the “lean Democratic” column.

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Bolduc, a retired Army brigadier general, is trying to oust Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan, while Fung — a former Democrat and former Cranston mayor — is facing Democratic state Treasurer Seth Magaziner in the race to replace Representative James R. Langevin, a Democrat who is stepping down after 22 years representing Rhode Island’s Second Congressional District.

In federal elections, New Hampshire is often a swing state that frequently functions as a “microcosm of national politics, where Republicans mimic national Republicans,” Hersh said. “Rhode Island and Massachusetts are a relief from that kind of politics.”

Providence College political science professor Adam S. Myers said Rhode Island does have “Trumpian Republicans,” but they face long odds in statewide elections.

For example, the honorary state cochair of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, Joseph A. Trillo, received just 4.4 percent of the vote when he ran as an independent in the 2018 gubernatorial race, finishing behind Fung at 37.2 percent and Democrat Gina M. Raimondo at 52.6 percent.

“We are not even like Massachusetts,” where state Republicans nominated the honorary state cochair of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, Geoff Diehl, for governor, Myers said. “We are more like Hawaii, where the Republican Party is almost a non-factor.”

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After winning their respective primaries, both Diehl and Bolduc said they no longer believe the 2020 election was stolen.

Cook Political Report senior editor David Wasserman, who analyzes US House races, said Fung is a GOP favorite “because he has represented a Democratic-leaning city and performed better than most Republicans have in Rhode Island.”

“It would be hugely significant for Republicans to win in a place they have not in decades,” he said of the Second Congressional District seat that has been held by Democrats since 1991. “It would signify that candidate recruitment is still important in an era when the underlying partisanship of a district drives most outcomes.”

Fung spent 12 years as mayor of Cranston, the largest city in Rhode Island’s Second Congressional District, and he twice ran for governor, winning the Second Congressional District when he lost to Raimondo in 2014. As the son of immigrants from Hong Kong, he also brings diversity to the GOP field, and if he wins he would be the first Asian American to represent Rhode Island in Congress.

“He is a credible messenger who does not look or sound like Donald Trump,” Wasserman said. “So Republicans are eager to showcase this seat as how they are expanding the battlefield.”

In spite of Fung’s popularity, Hersh notes that he still faces an uphill climb. Voters are “savvy,” Hersh said, and know that no matter how moderate, a Republican congressman from Rhode Island would caucus with a House GOP that would include much more conservative members, leaders, and priorities.

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Another moderate Rhode Island Republican, former senator Lincoln D. Chafee, lost to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in 2006 in part because Whitehouse linked Chafee to President George W. Bush, he said.

This year, Magaziner is attempting to lash Fung to Trump and McCarthy. That task became easier when McCarthy, a California Republican, came to Rhode Island in August to raise money for Fung. While McCarthy tweeted a photo of himself standing next to Fung against an ocean backdrop, Fung was silent about the visit for two days before issuing a short statement. And last month, Claudine Schneider, a Republican who represented the Second Congressional District from 1981 to 1991, endorsed Magaziner, saying, “The GOP in Washington has become the party of insurrectionist Donald Trump, and it is directly at odds with the values of Rhode Islanders.”

But the Second Congressional District, which covers the western half of Rhode Island, is not as blue as it used to be.

In 2012, Rhode Island Democrats redrew the boundary between the state’s two congressional districts, bolstering Democratic Representative David N. Cicilline’s chances as he faced poor poll numbers and a strong opponent in the First Congressional District. That decade-old gerrymander helped Cicilline, but it made the Second Congressional District more conservative, which could help Fung now, Myers said.

In order to win the seat, Fung will need to go beyond the district’s conservative base, Myers said. It was probably no coincidence, he said, that when the US Chamber of Commerce endorsed Fung last month the message was delivered by a Democrat — Stephen P. McAllister, who is both the chamber’s Eastern Region vice president and president of the Warwick City Council.

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Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at The Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said the Second Congressional District is one of the most Democratic districts that Republicans are targeting this year. His publication places the race in its “lean Democratic” category. In 2020, Biden won 57 percent of the two-party vote there, compared to 43 percent for Trump.

“If Langevin were running again, we wouldn’t be talking about this race,” Kondik said. “But Republicans have a credible candidate. They have reasons to think they have a real shot at it, but it’s probably a touch too blue.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.