PROVIDENCE — Republican congressional candidate Gerry W. Leonard Jr. on Tuesday blasted his Democratic rival, Gabe Amo, for refusing to take part in more debates.
Leonard, an underdog in a district that gave President Biden a 29-percentage-point victory in the 2020 presidential election, said Amo had agreed to just one debate before the Nov. 7 general election — a Nov. 3 appearance on WPRI-Channel 12′s “Newsmakers.” And he challenged Amo to a series of 12 debates throughout the First Congressional District.
“My opponent is disrespecting the voters by not debating the issues that affect Rhode Island families,” Leonard said at a morning news conference. “It is unfortunate that my opponent is playing the same old partisan playbook of hiding from debates.”
Soon after the news conference, WJAR-Channel 10 reported that Amo has agreed to take part in a Channel 10 debate with Leonard.
And Matt Rauschenbach, communications director for Amo’s campaign, issued a statement, saying, “Gabe is excited to participate in two televised debates on WJAR and WPRI.”
“Gabe’s Republican opponent will have the opportunity to explain to Rhode Islanders why he supports an extreme and dysfunctional GOP majority that has brought our government to the brink of shutdown, stripped away women’s rights, worked relentlessly to give massive tax breaks to the uber-wealthy, and done nothing to address to epidemic of gun violence plaguing our communities,” he said. “Gabe will continue to travel across the district, hearing directly from Rhode Islanders and sharing his vision for the Ocean State.”
The day began with Leonard standing at a podium near the Roger Williams statue in Prospect Terrace Park, saying the state’s founder “fled to the shores of Narragansett Bay to create a free society where the people determine their fate and democratic principles govern.”
“As a US Marine, I spent 30 years fighting for democracy and against extremism around the globe,” Leonard said. “A vibrant, open debate is a critical part of our democratic system. We should respect democracy at home by debating.”
Leonard said he has agreed to participate in eight debates but that Amo has declined to participate in a debates or forums organized by The Public’s Radio and The Providence Journal, the League of Women Voters, The Bartholomewtown Podcast, Rhode Island College’s Raymond Baccari Jr., and WNRI radio in Woonsocket.
Leonard said he said he does not know why Amo, a former White House aide for Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden, has not committed to more debates.
But, he said, “I assume his lack of an economic plan or vision for Rhode Island has led him to run solely on his political appointments where he served as a cheerleader for the policies that are crippling Rhode Island families, making us weak abroad, and driving political extremism at home.”
The paucity of debates stands in sharp contrast to the numerous debates and candidate forums held during the primary campaign.
Amo emerged from a 12-candidate Democratic field, receiving 32.4 percent of the vote to beat former state representative J. Aaron Regunberg with 24.9 percent and state Senator Sandra C. Cano with 13.9 percent.
Providence College political science Professor Adam S. Myers said the reason Amo is now turning down all but a couple of debates is obvious: “He views himself as the clear front-runner in this race.”
If he did participate in more debates, Amo would make the race seem competitive, and he wants to avoid that impression, Myers said. Also, Amo would run the risk of making a gaffe that would draw negative media attention, he said.
“If you are way head of your opponent, you more or less try to ignore them,” Myers said. “And you don’t change that strategy unless the circumstances dictate it.”
While there has been no independent polling in this race, Myers said Amo has reason to be confident. Among First Congressional District voters, 46 percent of registered voters are Democrats, 42 percent are unaffiliated, and 12 percent are Republicans, according to the secretary of state’s office.
“In this day and age, most voters vote their party in congressional races, and partisan composition of this district is too much for Leonard to overcome,” Myers said. “Voters will see the D and R on their ballot, and for most voters in America, that is enough.”
Leonard and Amo are vying to replace Democrat David N. Cicilline, who stepped down June 1 to become president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation.
No Republican has come within 10 percentage points of defeating a Democrat in the district since former state representative John Loughlin, who lost to Cicilline by 6 percentage points in 2010. A Republican hasn’t represented the district since Ronald Machtley, who served three terms between 1989 and 1995 before running unsuccessfully for governor.
The First Congressional District comprises roughly the eastern half of Rhode Island, including much of the urban core, East Bay coastal communities, and Aquidneck Island.