We know the Pawtucket Red Sox are leaving Rhode Island. But what we don’t know is where this leaves Governor Gina Raimondo’s already precarious position ahead of her reelection campaign.
Four years ago, Raimondo, a Democrat, was elected with 41 percent of the vote in a race that featured a Republican and a strong independent candidate. Since then, her approval rating has never been above 50 percent, and she has consistently ranked among the least popular governors in the country.
Now, less than three weeks before the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, Raimondo has a challenge on the left from former secretary of state Matt Brown. The Democratic nominee will face one of Raimondo’s challengers from 2014, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, if he, as expected, wins the GOP primary. Polls show a Raimondo-Fung rematch as a statistical tie.
So far Raimondo’s opponents have criticized the governor on many things, but few topics may have the emotional resonance for voters as losing one of the state’s two minor-league professional teams. Now all the state has for big-time sports is the Providence Bruins.
“Sad Sox fans can only reach one conclusion as they watch their team this year: We need a change,” said Fung in a statement.
Raimondo defended herself to reporters on Friday, when the news broke that the team would relocate to Worcester, saying she shouldn’t get the blame. She said she supported a bill with incentives to build a new ballpark that the team’s owners liked. But after that bill passed the Senate, the House speaker reworked its language (stripping out critical bond guarantees) that, as a result, put other options back on the table for the owners.
Rhode Island pollster Joe Fleming said he isn’t sure how much blame Raimondo will get for the PawSox leaving.
“Could people say that she only supported them staying 100 percent and not 110 percent? I guess,” said Fleming. “But none of her opponents have offered a tangible alternative as to what they would have done to keep them, so I am not sure how effective this argument against her will be.”
Also, as Raimondo told reporters, “As far as I can tell, the deal that Worcester is offering the PawSox is much, much more generous than what we were offering, and frankly more than Rhode Island could afford.”
As Republicans blamed Raimondo, Raimondo blamed House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, and Mattiello blamed the PawSox for not being loyal to Pawtucket and the state.
But if anyone is to blame it might be former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling. For six years the political discussion in Rhode Island was dominated by the state’s use of taxpayer money to convince Schilling to locate his video game company, 38 Studios, there with $75 million in loan guarantees. A few months later, the company filed for bankruptcy protection. The investigations into what happened and efforts to recoup money lasted years.
During the two years that the PawSox have been discussing a new ballpark — first in Providence, and then a new location in Pawtucket — PawSox chairman Larry Lucchino seemed to acknowledge the political reality of trying to get any help from the Ocean State in a 2016 interview on WPRI-TV.
“I will admit to thinking our situation was certainly clouded by the hangover — as you call it — of 38 Studios,” Lucchino said.
Indeed, Raimondo was the only one of the six candidates running for governor who backed using taxpayer money to keep the PawSox.
“Making taxpayers pay to build a stadium for the PawSox, a corporation run by billionaires, was never a good strategy and was deeply unpopular in Rhode Island,” said Brown, Raimondo’s Democratic primary opponent. “Losing the team after two years of negotiation on the wrong terms from the beginning will only add to frustration with the current governor.”
Rhode Island native Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes races for governor nationally for the Cook Political Report in Washington, D.C., said she believes that Raimondo’s chances for reelection remain the same now that the PawSox have become the WooSox.
“The accepted media narrative is that the House speaker is to blame and not the governor,” said Duffy. “If people are blaming Raimondo on this, there is probably a good chance that they were never voting for her in the first place.”