PROVIDENCE — Another day, another congressional debate in Rhode Island.
August will provide Rhode Island voters with plenty of chances to see the many First Congressional District candidates square off in a series of debates and forums, including a Monday night event organized by peace advocates.
But the challenge will be trying to distinguish policy differences in the 12-candidate Democratic field, where the leading candidates have largely agreed on issues ranging from climate change to affirmative action.
John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said the busy debate schedule will give candidates lots of chances to secure chunks of support in what is expected to be a low-turnout special election. The primary is Sept. 5, and the special election is Nov. 7.
“The candidates are trying to put together small slices of the electorate into a winning coalition,” Marion said. “And whether it’s debating this week around issues of war and peace or debating last week about issues of racial equality, they are speaking to different parts of the electorate that care deeply about different issues. There might be a chance for them to stand out.”
Joseph Fleming, a veteran Rhode Island pollster, said it’s going to be difficult for candidates to distinguish themselves in such a crowded field. “Debates usually last an hour or an hour-and-a-half, and with this many candidates, you won’t get to say that much,” he said. “And they all agree on most of the issues.”
Televised debates will attract larger audiences than the smaller forums, he said, but it’s still summertime and many voters are simply debating what beach to go to.
“I’m not sure the debates will have a great impact unless one of the candidates stumbles in one of the debates by making an error,” Fleming said, recalling that former Republican gubernatorial candidate Allan W. Fung lost support after voicing support for “right to work” laws during a debate.
Marion said the Democratic candidates might agree on a lot of issues, but the debates will provide an opportunity to define what issues they would prioritize if they made it to D.C. Members of Congress tend to specialize in certain policy areas, he said, noting that former US representative David N. Cicilline specialized in antitrust matters, US Senator Jack Reed focuses on defense issues, and US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse concentrates on judicial ethics and climate change.
“Everyone might be pro-choice,” he said of the candidates, “but someone might want to make a career out of the pro-choice issue versus checking a box.”
The August debates also will offer a chance to drill down on topics of interest to the host organizations, Marion said. “If you have an hour devoted to some narrower topic, people have a chance to learn about where the candidates stand on the more specific topics,” he said.
Another benefit will come from how debates can shape news coverage, Marion said. Without candidate forums, media coverage tends to focus on polling and the “horse race,” or on press releases and news conferences where candidates are trying to get a message out on their own terms, he said.
“In debates, candidates are held accountable for their message by both the moderators and their opponents,” he said, “so the coverage is often more substantive.”
But Providence College political scientist Joseph Cammarano said he doubts the August debates will do much to help voters decide on a candidate, and he said they could end up being counterproductive because candidates should be focused on identifying voters and activating them to get to the polls. “In a low turnout primary, it’s all about the ground game — mobilization, volunteers getting people to polls to vote for their candidate,” he said.
Cammarano said some candidates seem to want to go to Congress to be a “celebrity” such as US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But he said it’s important for candidates to display a grasp of what it takes to serve in Congress, to operate in a highly partisan environment, and to compromise and get things done.
Marion said Rhode Island is seeing a lot of debates because this is a competitive race. “When you have a race with small margins, a candidate can’t risk offending even a small slice of the electorate by not showing up at a debate,” he said.
If the race included a clear front-runner, that candidate could dictate the terms of when and where to debate, Marion said. “The joke when I was a kid was that (then New York governor) Mario Cuomo always was such a favorite that he would only debate his Republican opponent on PBS on Friday night opposite a Yankees playoff game,” he said.
But this year, the Yankees are 12 games out of first place, and the front-runners are showing up for events such as Friday’s debate at the Providence Public Library hosted by the Black Lives Matter RI PAC and the Rhode Island Black Business Association. And during that debate, some of the candidates with the most campaign cash came under fire.
For example, state Senator Ana B. Quezada, a Providence Democrat, asked the audience, “How many of you have a family member who can give you $125,000” to support their campaign. She was referring to a campaign mailer backing former state representative J. Aaron Regunberg that was funded by a super PAC whose only two donors are Regunberg’s father-in-law, James Cielinski (who donated $125,000) and his mother Erica Regunberg (who donated $5,000). Regunberg has said his campaign did not coordinate with his family members on the new super PAC.
Quezada, who had $43,000 in in her campaign account, also asked, “How many of you take $600,000 from your personal account” to pour into a campaign? She was referring Don Carlson, a renewable energy investor from Jamestown who had the largest campaign war chest after the second quarter after pouring $600,000 of his own money into his campaign.
Debates could become even more heated in the August days ahead. Here are some upcoming candidate forums:
- On Monday, eight of the 12 Democratic candidates for the First Congressional District seat are expected to take part in a Peace Advocates’ Candidate Forum hosted by a coalition of Rhode Island peace groups from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Weaver Library in East Providence. The debate will be moderated by journalist Steve Ahlquist.
- On Tuesday, 10 of the 12 Democratic candidates are expected to take part in a forum co-hosted by the Social Enterprise Greenhouse from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Social Enterprise Greenhouse’s Hub, at 10 Davol Square in Providence’s Jewelry District. The forum will be moderated SEG Chief Executive Officer Julie Owens and Lisa Ranglin, executive director the the Rhode Island Black Business Association.
- On Thursday, at least eight of the 12 Democratic candidates are expected take part in a debate at 9 a.m. on the “Bartholomewtown Podcast” with journalist Bill Bartholomew. The podcast will be available at 11 a.m. Thursday and broadcast on WPRO multiple times in the days afterward.
- On Aug. 15, 11 of the 12 Democratic congressional candidates will take part in a forum presented by Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at 401 Elmgrove Ave. in Providence. The moderator will be Rabbi Sarah Mack.
- On Aug. 15, the Ocean State Current, the media arm of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity, will begin posting interviews with candidates on the “In The Dugout with Mike Stenhouse” podcast. The tentative broadcast schedule includes Democrat Allen Waters at 4 p.m. Aug. 15, Democrat Stephen Casey at 5 p.m. Aug. 15, Democrat Spencer Dickinson at 4 p.m. Aug. 16, and Republican Terri Flynn at 5 p.m. Aug. 16.
- On Aug. 17, 10 of the 12 Democratic candidates are expected to take part in a debate from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in the Roger Williams University Campus Recreation Center, 1 Old Ferry Road, Bristol. The debate is sponsored by the Rhode Island Association of Democratic City and Town Chairs and hosted by Roger Williams University. The debate will be moderated by Boston Globe reporters Edward Fitzpatrick and Steph Machado.
- On Aug. 22; 10 of the 12 Democratic candidates are expected to take part in a forum from 6 to 8 p.m. at Rhode Island College. The event is organized by The Public’s Radio, The Providence Journal, Rhode Island PBS, and Rhode Island College. The debate will be moderated by Ian Donnis of The Public’s Radio and Patrick Anderson of The Providence Journal.
- On Aug. 29, WPRI-12 will broadcast a live debate at 7 p.m. from the Rhode Island College campus. All Democratic primary candidates who qualify under the Nexstar Media Inc. nationwide criteria will be invited to participate. The debate will be moderated by WPRI’s Tim White and Ted Nesi.
- On Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, WJAR-10 will be airing a pair of one hour debates from Rhode Island College both beginning at 4 p.m. Each hour will feature six candidates. Brian Crandall will be the moderator.