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In Rhode Island, a moderate Republican looks for a place in a Trumpian party

Does Allan Fung herald the return of New England Republicanism — or is he destined to be a lonely voice?

Allan Fung greeted diners at the Brewed Awakenings coffee shop in Warwick, R.I., on Oct. 25.David Goldman/Associated Press

CRANSTON, R.I. — It’s election season and the television hanging over the bar at Twin Oaks Restaurant is overrun with attack ads.

Most of them, on this Thursday afternoon, are aimed at Allan Fung, the Republican candidate for Rhode Island’s Second Congressional District.

Too dangerous, too extreme,” one announcer warns. Fung, another says, remained “extremely loyal to Trump” even after the president put “kids in cages” at the border and incited the violence of Jan. 6, 2021.

But the spots, however strident, seem to bounce off the wood-paneled walls and settle into the plates of veal parmesan and breaded chicken cutlets without much effect.

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The patrons of Twin Oaks Restaurant, an old-school Rhode Island icon, don’t recognize the extremist depicted on the television screen. They’ve been watching Fung since his days as mayor of Cranston, the largest city in the district. And he’s always seemed reasonable.

“I’ve known him for years,” says Scott Nunes, a salesman who has crossed paths with the former mayor at “I can’t tell you how many” restaurants and community events. “He’s a genuine person.”

Tony Rainone, a retiree who works as a part-time driver for a dental lab, feels the same way. He’s voting for the Democrat in the governor’s race, but it’s Fung for Congress. “He comes to my gun club,” Rainone says. “Always been good.”

Fung, the son of immigrants, has done all he can to reinforce the image of the relatable Republican. He shot one of his first campaign commercials right here at Twin Oaks — an upbeat, slightly goofy ad with a focus on bread-and-butter issues like lowering gas prices and bringing down home heating bills. The candidate has staked out a moderate position on abortion. And he has rejected former president Trump’s claims of fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

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Put it all together and he has a real shot at winning a district Joe Biden carried by almost 14 points.

In a poll conducted for Rhode Island television station WPRI in late September and early October, Fung led his Democratic opponent, state treasurer Seth Magaziner, by six points. A Boston Globe poll released shortly thereafter had him up by eight.

Democrats, citing internal surveys, insist the race has tightened since then. But Fung’s strong showing has made the campaign an object of national attention.

Super PACs aligned with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, and Kevin McCarthy, the Republican in line to take the speaker’s chair if the GOP wins a majority, have poured millions into the race. And in the press, Fung has become a symbol of what looks like a cresting GOP wave in the House — Republicans are so strong this cycle, they’re even winning in Rhode Island.

But the race isn’t just about a charismatic moderate who could nudge the GOP into the majority in the next Congress. It’s about something bigger. It’s about the fate of the moderate Republican project itself — both as political force and as governing philosophy.

Fung is pitching his campaign as a bid to revive a temperate New England conservatism that has been reduced to near insignificance by the GOP’s Trumpist turn. And if he can win — and become a model for the Republican Party in parts of the country that seem to be slipping out of its grasp — then his campaign could have long-term implications for the balance of power in Congress.

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If he loses, or turns out to be a one-off — a lonely success in a region that remains almost entirely shut off to Republicans seeking national office — then the Fung electoral phenomenon doesn’t seem nearly as consequential.

If his significance as campaigner hangs in the balance, so does his significance as legislator.

In Congress, he’s pledged to stand with a small, besieged band of GOP moderates. And these centrists will have outsize responsibility for proving that a party increasingly bent on sabotage can actually govern when handed a majority.

Succeed and they keep a creaking American democracy functional. Fail and the breakdown only accelerates. And the very purpose of moderate Republicanism — tempering the extreme elements of our politics — comes into question.

Democratic House candidate Seth Magaziner, the state treasurer, during a debate on Oct. 18 with former Cranston mayor Allan Fung.Corey Welch/Associated Press

Powerful or invisible?

It’s a clever bit of politics. A practiced aside. A way for Fung to signal that he’s the sort of Republican who will break with his party if it’s in Rhode Island’s interest.

If he’d been in Congress last year, he likes to say in media interviews, he would have voted for President Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure law.

Why does he mention this legislation in particular?

The measure, aimed at fixing roads, improving ports, and replacing old lead pipes, is popular. It plays into his broader message of improving the economy.

And Fung can legitimately claim that support for the infrastructure package puts him in rare company: Only 13 House Republicans crossed party lines to vote for it.

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But this is where his argument for electing a moderate Republican gets a little tricky.

It’s unclear how effective someone like Fung could be in Congress when the dealmaking, democracy-protecting GOP contingent he promises to join is so small — and getting smaller.

Of the 13 House Republicans who voted for the infrastructure legislation, at least seven won’t be in Congress next year.

One died. One announced he wouldn’t seek office again amid allegations that he groped a lobbyist. Another lost in a Republican primary to a Trump-backed candidate who blasted him for the infrastructure vote. And four of the lawmakers — all of whom also voted to impeach Trump — opted not to run for reelection in a party with a vanishing tolerance for dissent.

Representative John Katko of New York is among them. He says that if Republicans win a House majority on Tuesday as expected, GOP moderates will immediately face off with a larger conservative wing of the party eager to establish its dominance.

“There’s going to be titanic fights within the party,” he says. “When to fund the government, how to fund the government, the debt ceiling. . . . There’s going to be tremendous pressure [on moderates] to do things they don’t believe in.”

Government shutdowns could be in play. Cuts to bedrock programs. A further splintering of a splintered country.

But if the handful of moderates who carry over from the current Congress and potential newcomers like Fung can stand firm, Katko argues, they can develop real sway.

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“I think in the majority, the moderates have more power than people can fathom, because the leadership will rely on them to get things done — as opposed to the most extreme elements of the party, who will do nothing but tear things down,” he says.

The current Congress, controlled by Democrats, offers a lesson in the influence of a well-positioned centrist.

Threatening to break with the party if he didn’t get his way, Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat and self-styled deficit hawk, was able to dramatically pare down the infrastructure bill and what became the Inflation Reduction Act, the climate-and-health policy measure at the heart of the Biden agenda.

Manchin only had that kind of power, though, because he was operating in a narrowly divided Senate and Democratic leadership needed his vote to get anything done.

A Congressman Fung and the small group of Republican moderates he would join won’t be able to have the same kind of impact in the House next year unless the GOP margin is similarly slight.

“If it’s a big, Republican red wave, you’re just a lonely voice,” says former senator Lincoln Chafee, the last Republican to represent Rhode Island in Congress. “Who cares how you vote?”

In this scenario, the moderate Republican — however familiar and likable — is little more than an enabler for the conservative mainstream of the party.

That’s the argument Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse successfully used against Chafee in the 2006 election. And Magaziner, Fung’s Democratic rival in this year’s House race, is reprising it.

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy visited Fung in Rhode Island in August.Handout

In a recent televised debate at the Providence Performing Arts Center, he said Fung’s professed support for abortion rights rings hollow when he has vowed to support a GOP leadership that opposes those rights. And he made a similar argument about Fung’s pledges to protect Social Security.

“He has committed himself, repeatedly, to voting for a Republican leadership team that has said that cutting Social Security and Medicare is one of their top priorities,” Magaziner said.

Whether the GOP would actually move forward on such a politically risky venture is unclear.

But the party may be forced to address another weighty matter that some rank-and-file Republican lawmakers wish would just go away — the Trumpian assault on democracy.

Trump seems to be preparing for another presidential run in 2024. And he’s doing all he can to keep bogus claims about widespread election fraud at the center of American politics.

Fung is clear about where he stands on those claims. “I’m not an election denier,” he said in a recent interview with the Globe editorial board.

But Trump is clearly an uncomfortable topic. Asked if he would have voted to impeach the former president after the Jan. 6 insurrection, Fung demurred. “I wasn’t there, wasn’t part of the hearing,” he said. “My focus isn’t on going backwards to relitigate what the former president did.”

Fung says he’d like to see a “fresh face” for the party in the next presidential election.

But even a fresh face may have to play to the base’s fears of voter fraud to win the nomination. And that could lead to a crisis like the one that unfolded after the 2020 election.

If that happens, no one will be under as much pressure as Republican moderates — conservatives urging them to toe the party line and everyone else insisting they protect democracy.

Model or unicorn?

GOP politicians who have broken with the party on major issues haven’t fared well of late. They’ve been battered in the conservative press and chased off the job by Trumpist challengers.

That would no doubt linger in the back of a Congressman Fung’s mind as he weighed how to vote and what to say in Washington. But he might have a little more leeway than some of his Republican colleagues.

Until now, at least, the right in Rhode Island hasn’t given him too much trouble.

A more conservative candidate for the Second District seat, former state representative Robert Lancia, struggled to get traction and was urged to drop out by party officials. He ended his campaign in June.

And the Trump network in Rhode Island, such as it is, doesn’t seem all that perturbed by Fung’s digs at the former president.

Both state cochairs of Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign, former state representative Doreen Costa and developer Jerry Zarrella, have donated to the Fung campaign. Both spoke highly of him in interviews with Ideas.

“Allan is like an adopted son,” Zarrella said. “I’ve known him since he got out of college. He and my son Michael were the best of friends, and they would always be over the house.”

Rhode Island is small. That’s been good for Fung. But it’s one of a number of factors that could make him difficult for New England Republicans to replicate.

He twice ran for Rhode Island governor; that boosted his name recognition ahead of the congressional run. And most important, he was the longtime mayor of a blue city.

A moderate message is one thing, “but having a record — a very long record — to back up that approach is something entirely different,” says state House minority leader Michael Chippendale. “And that’s where Allan, I think, is unique.”

If Fung manages to win, he may not be the only New England Republican to succeed on Tuesday. Former state senator George Logan of Connecticut — like Fung, the rare Republican of color to hold office in a left-leaning patch of New England — is neck and neck with Democratic Representative Jahana Hayes.

But other moderate Republican House candidates in New England face longer odds — including former naval officer Mike France in Connecticut and former congressman Bruce Poliquin in Maine.

If Fung winds up being the sole New England Republican in the House, or one of two, he will no doubt be heralded by national Republicans as a breakthrough.

But if the GOP can’t produce another Fung in these parts in two or four or six years, he may be seen, in time, as an anomaly in a country hopelessly divided.

That would be disappointing coda to a fascinating race. It would be a worrisome sign for American democracy, too.


David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.