PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Republican Party is poised to pick a new chair on Saturday, choosing between former chair Giovanni D. Cicione and former state Senate candidate Joseph A. Powers.
The winner will replace Sue Cienki, who is stepping down to run for the Republican national committeewoman position that Lee Ann Sennick is vacating.
The new chair will take over after a disappointing GOP showing in last year’s election cycle. Democrats swept the statewide offices, Republican Allan W. Fung lost lost the high-profile Second Congressional District race, and despite recruiting 66 General Assembly candidates, the Republican Party lost a seat, leaving it with 14 of the 113 Assembly seats.
But the new chair will take over as Rhode Island gears up for a special election in the First Congressional District to replace US Representative David N. Cicilline, a Democrat who is resigning to lead the Rhode Island Foundation. And the new chair will take over as the 2024 presidential campaign begins to heat up.
The state Republican nominating committee voted to recommend Cicione over Powers. But more than 170 people are expected to cast votes when the GOP state convention takes place at 10 a.m. Saturday at The Event Factory in Warwick.
Cicione, 52, of Barrington, is an attorney who served as chair of the state Republican Party from 2007 to 2011, and he argues that his experience makes him the best candidate.
“I just met Joe. He seems like a great guy, and he has a great future in the party,” Cicione said Thursday. “This is more about experience. We have a congressional election this year. How often do you get an open congressional seat? And I think the party’s general sense is that we need someone who will hit the ground running so our candidate has the best chance possible to win.”
When he was chairman, the party ran 102 candidates for General Assembly races, he said. “We won a lot of races and elected more Republicans.”
Powers, 52, of Cranston, works as a real estate agent, general contractor, and investor, and he previously served in the US Coast Guard. He maintains that the state GOP needs “an injection of new blood.”
The GOP “should be looking to the future to build something instead of the same old stuff,” he said. While Cicione has experience, he said, “My goal is not to hit the ground running — it’s to fly over it.”
Powers ran for state Senate last year, losing to Senator Frank S. Lombardi, a Cranston Democrat who received 57.6 percent of the vote while Powers received 42.2 percent.
Powers said he’d always been an “armchair politician,” so he finally “listened to my Irish mother to shut up or put up” — and ran for the legislature. While he lost, he said he was “totally enthralled” by the experience and looked for ways to stay involved.
He has remained in touch with other Republicans who ran last year, and they are looking for ways “to take the party to the next level,” he said. “Let’s not focus on problems, let’s focus on solutions.”
The first order of business for the new party chair will be backing a Republican candidate for the First Congressional District seat. Cicilline is stepping down June 1, and the primaries could take place as soon as Aug. 8.
Cicione ran for the First Congressional District seat himself back in 1996 — losing to then-Representative Patrick J. Kennedy, a Democrat who received 69 percent of the vote to Cicione’s 28 percent. Cicione said he was running “on a shoestring budget against a guy with a $1 million budget whose last name is Kennedy.”
But Cicione said he has worked on other campaigns since then, and he noted that this year two of the most well-financed potential Democratic candidates (House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and former CVS executive Helena Buananno Foulkes) have said they won’t run for the First Congressional District seat.
Aaron Guckian, a Republican who lost last year’s race for lieutenant governor, is considering running for the congressional seat, and others have not ruled it out.
Cicione noted Democrats enjoy an advantage in the First Congressional District in part because of decade-old gerrymandering that helped Cicilline win his first re-election campaign.
Powers said, “One of the most challenging things is that the territory has been held by Democrats for a long time. The focus is primarily going to be on fund-raising, infrastructure, and identifying the right candidate.”
When the congressional race concludes, attention will immediately shift to the presidential campaign. The GOP candidates who’ve already declared include former president Donald Trump, former US ambassador Nikki Haley, and former Cranston mayor Stephen Laffey. Other potential GOP candidates include Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former vice president Mike Pence, and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Cicione started out as state chair for Senator Rand Paul and then became state co-chair of Senator Ted Cruz’s campaign.
Cicione said Trump has support in parts of Rhode Island, including the “solid blue” town of Johnston, but he said Trump is “not the kind of politician Rhode Islanders tend to go for.” He said there’s a good chance others could move up in the GOP field, and he said DeSantis has a “personality a bit more aligned with the ability to capture votes while not offending other voters.”
In 2016, Powers said he voted for Trump because he “wanted to see what a businessman could do, as opposed to senators and attorneys,” and he said, “I wanted someone to shake the tree.” But he said he is a “data-driven guy” and will look at all the options for Republican presidential candidates and their prospects in the year ahead.
Powers said Republicans have allowed others to define their message. For example, the GOP is often portrayed as opposing LGBTQ+ people but “nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “The Republican Party is the party of the working class,” he said. “We are the party of getting people to work, and smaller government.”
Cicione said Republicans in other states have been emphasizing “school choice,” helping “traditionally blue districts to swing red, including in minority communities.” He said, “Educational choice issues are really impacting voters,” and it’s important that “the money follows the child, not the system.”
In February, former GOP attorney general candidate Charles “Chas” Calenda announced he would run to succeed Cienki as party chair. But he pulled out four days later, citing “family and work/client commitments over the next year.”
On Saturday, Republicans will be voting for a full slate of officers: Jessica Drew-Day and Russell Hryzan are vying for first vice chair. David Talan, Scott Bill Hirst, and Niyoka Powell are competing for second vice chair. Mary Lou Sanborn is unopposed for secretary. Lance Chappell is unopposed for treasurer. And Cienki is unopposed for national committeewoman.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.