PROVIDENCE — Democratic incumbent Governor Dan McKee, who inherited Rhode Island’s top job 20 months ago and has guided the state through the second half of the COVID-19 pandemic, won a full four-year term Tuesday, the Associated Press projects, defeating Republican newcomer Ashley Kalus.
With 90 percent of precincts reporting, McKee had 56 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results from the state Board of Elections.
“We are just getting started,” McKee said during his victory speech at The Graduate hotel in Providence. He vowed to bring Rhode Island’s education proficiency rates in line with Massachusetts by 2030.
The two rivals have run intensely negative campaigns since emerging from their respective primaries in September, with McKee framing Kalus as a “seagull manager” who has been “crapping all over the state of Rhode Island,” and Kalus repeatedly questioning the integrity and competence of McKee during his 20 months in the state’s top job.
McKee, 71, was promoted to governor last year when Gina Raimondo joined President Joe Biden’s administration as secretary of commerce. He took the helm at a time when Rhode Island was considered among the worst states in the country for COVID-19 vaccination rates, but the state quickly emerged as one of the country’s most-vaccinated states.
When his win was announced, supporters at the Graduate Hotel in Providence broke into chants of “Four more years.”
This state, said @SenWhitehouse, is “not for political tourism.”— Alexa Gagosz (@AlexaGagosz) November 9, 2022
Here at the @RIDemParty headquarters, with the announcement of @DanMcKeeRI clinching the gov’s race, chants of “four more years” are being repeated by the ballroom at the Graduate Hotel in downtown Providence. pic.twitter.com/E2aIFuh4Pr
As governor, McKee has benefited from a massive infusion of federal funding, which had led the state to post a record budget surplus, while also carving out plans to spend billions of dollars on infrastructure, housing, other economic development initiatives. But he’s been dogged by a controversial decision by his administration to award a multimillion-dollar education consulting contract to a firm whose founder used to work for one of McKee’s top allies. State and federal law enforcement are now reviewing the deal.
McKee’s political base is largely made up of older, moderate Democratic voters in the Blackstone Valley, and his closest allies in recent years have been the mayors and town administrators in places like North Providence, Pawtucket, Johnston, and Lincoln. He won a hotly contest primary in September over former CVS executive Helena Foulkes and Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea.
Kalus, 40, moved to Rhode Island after winning a multimillion-dollar COVID-19 vaccination contract from the state with the company she founded with her a husband, plastic surgeon Jeffrey Weinzweig (who completed a residency at what is now The Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University). On the campaign trail, she has advocated for public school choice and a friendlier business climate.
But Kalus has faced a barrage of criticism from Democrats about her past, including a disparaging set of text messages with a Chicago contractor where she ridiculed and threatened him amid a billing dispute. She was also accused of pushing a pregnant woman in Chicago and had a run-in with local officials about a rental property in Florida.
A Globe/Suffolk University poll from early October showed McKee with a lead of 10 percentage points over Kalus, but the Republican has spent more than $5 million of her own money — largely on television ads — to boost her name recognition. She claimed the race was close heading into Election Day, although there has been no public polling in recent weeks.
Republicans haven’t won statewide or federal office in Rhode Island since 2006, when governor Don Carcieri was reelected. But the GOP coalesced around Kalus long before she won easily in the Republican primary, and she was allowed to target her message to independent voters and frustrated Democrats. She pounded McKee with negative ads in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s election, while McKee struggled to keep pace because of fund-raising disadvantage.
McKee and Kalus are joined on the ballot by independent candidates Elijah Gizzarelli, Zachary Hurwitz, and Paul Rianna.
Dan McGowan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan. Brian Amaral can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44. Alexa Gagosz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.