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With small turnout, endorsements could make big difference in R.I. congressional race

But it looks like the state Democratic Party and Rhode Island AFL-CIO will remain neutral in the race that has 35 declared candidates

The U.S Capitol in Washington, D.C.Mariam Zuhaib/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island’s First Congressional District race has produced a garden of flowery endorsements — grandiloquent expressions of support from near and far.

From the vice chairman of the Portsmouth School Committee to Jane Fonda’s Climate PAC, from a state senator from Woonsocket to a former White House chief of staff, individuals and groups have felt compelled to tell the world which of the 35 declared candidates allows them to sleep better knowing there will be fighter representing the great State of Rhode Island in Washington, D.C.

Many of those long-winded encomiums will never be heard by the average voter.


But, observers say, those little endorsements could play a big role in this special election because it’s shaping up to be a low-turnout, off-year election that lacks a big name that could clear the field. And it looks like this election will not include endorsements by two of the state’s most potent political organizations — the Rhode Island Democratic Party and the Rhode Island AFL-CIO.

“Because we expect a low turnout, the endorsements could make a big impact,” said Joseph Fleming, a veteran Rhode Island pollster. “With all these candidates, the winning number is going to be fairly low.”

He estimated the winner of the Sept. 5 Democratic primary could receive as few as 10,000 votes, based on a projected turnout of 30,000 to 40,000 registered voters, and that Democrat will be in a “very strong position” to win the Nov. 7 general election. The First Congressional District contains 150,761 Democrats, 147,249 unaffiliated voters, and 39,849 Republicans.

Fleming said it’s no surprise that the Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO have not thrown their weight behind any one candidate. In a special election, candidates have a “free shot,” meaning they remain in their current office if they lose the congressional race, he noted.


“The problem is everyone has friends in this race,” he said. “If they lose, they are still in office, so a lot of these groups are being careful in what they do.”

But the lack of party backing means that other endorsements take on added value, Fleming said. So, he said, the backing of a state legislator, a mayor, a city council member, a national group, or a union local could be quite valuable, especially if that support comes with on-the-ground support.

“If they want to do the work, that makes a difference,” he said. “If they call their supporters, it could definitely be a help.”

Fleming said some of the biggest endorsements to date include EMILY’S List (which helps to elect Democratic female candidates who support abortion rights) supporting Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, and the Rhode Island Working Families Party (which sent canvassers to more than 25,000 doors last year) endorsing former state representative J. Aaron Regunberg.

“The most important endorsements in what may be a low turnout election are the endorsements that put boots on the ground, especially on Election Day,” Providence College political science Professor Tony Affigne said. “Money is also important, so that endorsements which also involve significant campaign contributions can help front-runners lock down their position or help lesser known candidates become competitive.”

Endorsements from national groups can bring credibility, visibility and money, Affigne said. Usually, outside groups don’t help much with get-out-the-vote efforts unless they have a local affiliate or are willing to help pay for canvassing organizations, he said. “So national organizations can indirectly help with the ground game, which is so important in a low-turnout, off-year special elections.”


National groups have been backing candidates in the First Congressional District race.

For example, the Latino Victory Fund endorsed Matos, Climate Hawks Vote endorsed Regunberg, the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund endorsed both Don Carlson and Nick Autiello, and New Politics (a progressive group of veterans and national security leaders) endorsed former Naval officer Walter Berbrick.

Mayors and other local officials also have been announcing their support for candidates.

For example, Newport Mayor Xay Khamsyvoravong endorsed former White House aide Gabe Amo and Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien endorsed state Senator Sandra Cano, a Pawtucket Democrat who works as the city’s director of commerce. And state Senator Ana Quezada, a Providence Democrat, has received support from local officials such as Providence City Council member Justin Roias, Lincoln Town Council member Pamela Azar, and Central Falls City Council member Franklin Solano.

“If elected officials are willing to put their own organizations to work, with supporters making phone calls and getting people out on Election Day, then those local endorsements can be very important,” Affigne said. “But if the endorsement is simply a formality or a courtesy and does not come with significant fundraising and organization, then they don’t mean very much.”

Rhode Island Democratic Party Chairman Joseph M. McNamara said the party’s executive committee met last month and decided against making an endorsement in the First Congressional District race, which has drawn 22 Democrats to declare their candidacies.


“Many of the individuals running are very loyal Democrats and it’s just too difficult,” he said.

McNamara noted the field includes two House committee chairman — House Finance Committee Chairman Marvin L. Abney, a Newport Democrat, and House Municipal Government and Housing Committee Chairman Stephen M. Casey, a Woonsocket Democrat, in addition to state senators such as Cano and Quezada.

“So we have a bounty of highly qualified candidates,” he said.

But McNamara, a Warwick Democrat who has been a state representative since 1995, said endorsements can make a difference in close races. “I’ve been around long enough to see races where individuals in the House have lost by 10 votes or less,” he said. “Those endorsements may be worth 3 to 5 percent.”

Patrick Crowley, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, said it’s looking like the labor organization will not make an endorsement in the special election because a two-thirds majority is required to back a candidate, and the individual union groups under its umbrella have multiple candidates they favor.

“The AFL-CIO is likely to remain neutral,” he said. “It’s fair to say many individual unions have strong ties with a number of different candidates. That is what makes this race unique, in my experience.”

But he said endorsements could come from unions such as the Laborers, the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association Rhode Island, the Service Employees International Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.


“The labor movement endorsement is a key endorsement, especially in a race like this because we not only bring boots on ground but the connections we have to our members are strong and deep,” Crowley said. “That’s why the labor movements could make a difference in this race, and that’s why it’s an even bigger deal we are staying neutral at this point.”

Communications Workers of America Local 1400 made the first union endorsement in the race, throwing its support behind Regunberg. But many other unions have yet to weigh in.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at Follow him @FitzProv.