PROVIDENCE — A grand total of 35 people officially declared their candidacy for the First Congressional District seat by Friday’s deadline, including 22 Democrats, four Republicans, and nine independents, the secretary of state’s office reported.
That bumper crop of candidates raises the question of why so many Rhode Islanders are itching to enter the race to represent Rhode Island in Congress. But the more pertinent question, according to Providence College political science Professor Adam S. Myers is: Why not?
“Obviously, the vast majority of these candidates don’t stand a chance,” Myers said. “But I suppose a lot of them are thinking: If not now, when?”
Members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation tend to stick around for a long time, he noted.
Granted, the state has seen two House seats open up in the past two years: James R. Langevin decided in January 2022 not to seek re-election after 22 years in the Second Congressional District, and then David N. Cicilline stepped down on June 1 after 12 years representing the First Congressional District, to become president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation.
But that kind of turnover is highly unusual, Myers said, noting Cicilline had been the newbie in the delegation.
“Whoever wins this seat is likely to occupy it for a decade, maybe longer, depending on who they are and what they want to do,” he said. “This potentially represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to go to D.C. as an elected member of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation.”
So, Myers said, candidates are thinking: Why not take a crack at it?
Also, he noted that this is a special election, which does not fall during a traditional midterm or presidential election year, and that means members of the General Assembly and other elected officials can take a shot at the seat, without fear of losing their current seats.
“Certainly, all the state legislators think there’s no down side to running because they don’t have to give up their seats to run,” Myers said. “If they lose, the worst-case scenario is they stay in the State House.”
He said he’s pretty sure there would be fewer candidates if Cicilline had served out the remainder of his term and the election took place during the 2024 presidential election year.
Myers noted that those 35 candidates still must collect 500 valid signatures on nomination papers by July 14 in order to qualify for the ballot, and some of them are bound to fail.
The leading contenders and the state legislators who have rounded up signatures in past elections probably won’t have trouble meeting that requirement, he said. “But the ‘no names’ without any connections or resources may have trouble,” he said. “They don’t have a team. They don’t have a ready-made set of volunteers to go out and knock on doors.”
In addition to the challenge of finding signatures, some candidates might drop out once they determine their campaigns are unlikely to gain traction, Myers said. “I hesitate to guess, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of candidates is cut in half,” he said.
Still, even if half of the 35 candidates collect enough signatures to get on the ballot, that would be a huge field of candidates, Myers said. “I try not to predict anything, but I assume the number of names on the ballot will be in the double digits,” he said.
While the number of candidates who make the ballot remains to be determined, there is a chance this election could set a record.
According to the secretary of state’s office, the record in recent decades for a primary is the eight candidates who ran for the Second Congressional District seat in 1996 (Democrat Robert A. Weygand won), and the record for a general election was the seven candidates who ran for governor in 2010 (then-independent Lincoln D. Chafee won). That’s based on a search of races going back to 1990.
Also, in 2008, a whopping 75 people ran for the North Providence Town Committee, but that’s for the Democratic town committee, which is not a public office.
In any case, Myers said that many of the candidates who have declared for the First Congressional District this year would stand little chance of success, and he said attention is bound focus on the top tiers of candidates.
No independent polling has been done to gauge who the front-runners are in the race. But he noted that Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, a Providence Democrat, has released an internal polling memo showing her in the lead. And he said he views her as the front-runner at this point, followed by former Representative J. Aaron Regunberg, a Providence Democrat, in the top tier.
“But the race is very fluid,” Myers cautioned, “and there are clearly a lot of undecideds.”
He said he sees a second tier emerging that includes former White House assistant Gabe Amo, state Senator Sandra Cano, Providence City Councilman John Goncalves, and renewable energy investor Donald Carlson. And he said a third tier, including Raimondo administration aide Nick Autiello and Senator Ana B. Quezada, “could potentially break out.”
All of those candidates are Democrats, and Myers said Republicans face long odds in a congressional district that voted overwhelmingly for Democratic President Joe Biden in 2020 (64 percent for Biden and 35 percent for Republican Donald Trump).
The declared Republican candidates are former Middletown Town Council member Terri Flynn, Gary Donald Fagnant, William J. LeBron Jr., and Gerry W. Leonard Jr.
Myers said that fact that better-known Republicans are not entering the race “strongly suggests the state Republican Party and national groups are not really going to invest much in this race.” He said that’s not surprising given the partisan composition of this district, which is “much more” liberal than the state’s Second Congressional District.
The primaries are set for Sept. 5 and the general election is scheduled for Nov. 7.
On Friday morning, Autiello held a news conference in Providence, calling on news organizations to hold debates prior to early voting, which starts Aug. 16.
“At the moment, there are no scheduled debates in this race before early voting starts,” Autiello said. “The voters of Rhode Island deserve to see the candidates debate each other as they make this choice.” (There is at least one Democratic primary forum scheduled in July, but formal debates have not yet been announced.)
He acknowledged the unwieldy size of the field, and said he would leave it up to debate organizers to determine the qualifications.
“Obviously I think there needs to be a cutoff line,” Autiello said. “A 20-person debate is not going to help anybody.”
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