PROVIDENCE — With voters heading to the polls Tuesday, total spending in the Second Congressional District race is nearing $14 million as Rhode Islanders get a glimpse of what it’s like to live in a swing state.
In a state as blue as Rhode Island, congressional campaigns often resemble this year’s sleepy matchup between Democratic US Representative David N. Cicilline and Republican Allen R. Waters in the First Congressional District. So far, that race has seen a mere $28 in outside spending (by the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood Votes).
But national attention is now riveted on the Second Congressional District, where polls show Republican Allan W. Fung leading Democrat Seth Magaziner in the race for a seat that has been in Democratic hands for more than 30 years.
So far, the contest has drawn a whopping $8.6 million in outside spending, according to OpenSecrets, a D.C. nonprofit that tracks campaign finance data. Between outside groups and the candidates themselves, total spending on the race stands at nearly $14 million, according to the data.
That means this race is fast approaching the $15.7 million spent on the 2006 US Senate battle between then-Republican Lincoln D. Chafee and Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse. And while Senate races are statewide, the Second Congressional District race is only for the western half of Rhode Island.
The outside groups are spending millions to flood the state’s airwaves and social media feeds with ads aimed at touting their candidates and eviscerating their opponents.
“This is what it feels like to live in a swing state,” said John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. “If you go to New Hampshire next December, this is what it is going to feel like because you won’t be able to watch TV without seeing ads for the presidential primary.”
Providence College political science Professor Adam S. Myers said that while Rhode Island has seen competitive gubernatorial races before, the state is not accustomed to this influx of outside spending and national media coverage. “What is going on this year has taken it to a different level as far as Rhode Island is concerned,” he said.
Myers said he would not be surprised if spending in this year’s Second Congressional District race eclipses the total in the 2006 Senate race, although he noted that any comparison must adjust for inflation.
This year’s “huge” amount of outside spending reflects the new reality ushered in by the 2010 US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which enabled corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited funds on elections, he said.
“We have not seen a competitive federal race in this state in this modern era in which the Supreme Court has effectively gutted all limits on campaign spending,” Myers said.
In 2006, the Chafee and Whitehouse campaigns poured $12.1 million into the race, while outside groups accounted for just $3.6 million of the $15.7 million total spent.
By contrast, the Fung and Magaziner campaigns have spent $5.3 million, while outside groups account for $8.6 million of the $13.9 million spent.
Marion noted that Rhode Island has not elected a Republican to either the House or the Senate since 2000, when Chafee beat then-US Representative Robert A. Weygand, a Democrat, in the Senate race.
“What has happened since the last time Rhode Island elected a Republican is an explosion in the amount of outside money controlled by super PACs and leadership PACs,” he said. “Citizens United triggered the explosion in super PACs.”
Republicans and Democrats are vying for control of Congress this year, as they were in 2006, Marion said. “This could be one of a handful of races that decide the balance of power,” he said, “and because of gerrymandering, there are far fewer competitive races than there were 20 years ago.”
Plus, a Fung victory would pack symbolic significance because there are no House Republicans from New England now, and Maine’s Susan Collins is the only Republican senator from New England, Marion said.
Myers said it is looking like Republicans will be able to take control of the House with or without Rhode Island’s Second Congressional District seat. “The writing is almost on the wall,” he said.
But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has visited Rhode Island to back Fung’s candidacy and would like to have as large a Republican majority as possible if he becomes the next House speaker, he said.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with McCarthy, has poured $3.7 million into the Second Congressional District race — far more than any other outside group, according to OpenSecrets data. Of that total, $3.4 million has gone toward opposing Magaziner.
Meanwhile, the House Majority PAC — the Democratic counterpart of the Congressional Leadership Fund — has put $1.9 million into the race, with all of it going toward opposing Fung, according to OpenSecrets.
“These numbers appear to be saying that this race caught the attention not just of the formal committees charged with electing more Democrats or Republicans to the House but also the super PACs loosely aligned with the national parties,” Myers said. “It has earned an even higher level of notoriety among D.C. elites and politicos than a competitive congressional race ordinarily would.”
Rhode Island would have seen a fraction of this spending if Democratic US Representative James R. Langevin had not made the surprise announcement in January that he planned to step down after 22 years in Congress, observers say.
In 2020, Langevin had spent $1.4 million while beating Republican former state Representative Robert B. Lancia, who spent just $47,877 on his campaign. Outside spending in that race was limited to the $183 spent in support of Lancia by Rhode Island State Right to Life, according to OpenSecrets. Langevin received 58.2 percent of the vote, topping Lancia at 42.5 percent.
This election cycle, the campaign spending for the open Second Congressional District seat is exponentially larger. To put it in Rhode Island terms, Marion said, “$14 million is a lot of Awful Awfuls.”