Establishment Democrats Are Pouring Millions Into Rhode Island to Save an Unpopular Governor From an Insurgent Challenge

Money that could be helping Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum, or Ben Jealous is instead going to a former banker in Rhode Island.

In this Tuesday, July 3, 2018, photo, Democrat Matt Brown, a gubernatorial hopeful and former Rhode Island secretary of state, greets volunteers at a nomination papers training event in North Kingstown, R.I. Brown is challenging Gov. Gina Raimondo in the Sept. 12 primary, in her bid for a second term. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Democrat Matt Brown, a gubernatorial hopeful and former Rhode Island secretary of state, greets volunteers at a nomination papers training event in North Kingstown, R.I. on July 3, 2018. Photo: Steven Senne/AP

Democrats across the country are zeroed in on a handful of dynamic gubernatorial candidates hoping to make history in three states currently governed by Republicans. In Florida, Georgia, and Maryland, Andrew Gillum, Stacey Abrams, and Ben Jealous are running unapologetically progressive campaigns that could result in each candidate becoming the first African-American to govern each state.

The Democratic Party and its allies, meanwhile, are pumping much-needed resources into Rhode Island in an effort prop up an unpopular incumbent governor facing an insurgent challenge in a blue state.

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo is working to fend off a progressive, albeit underfunded, primary challenge from the left. Matt Brown, a former Rhode Island secretary of state, is running a grassroots campaign against Raimondo, who he describes as “the most extreme corporatist Democrat in the country.”

The Democratic Governors Association has pumped in $1 million to support Raimondo, money that won’t be available for Georgia, Florida, or Maryland. EMILY’s List, which helps elect pro-choice women, jumped in as well, spending $345,000 on pre-primary mailers for the incumbent. Although Raimondo presents herself as pro-choice, she was criticized by reproductive rights advocates for passing what amounted to restrictions on abortion access during her first term in office and is listed as “mixed-choice” by NARAL Pro-Choice America.

July survey found Raimondo with a 40 percent job approval rating among the general public and 58 percent among Democrats. That dropped to 29 percent among independents, who are legally allowed to vote in Wednesday’s primary.

Raimondo, a former venture capitalist, has raised nearly $7.8 million for her re-election, raking in much of her fundraising from the same corporate players responsible for the state’s fiscal problems. The claim of “most extreme corporatist” may sound like hyperbole, but as state treasurer, Raimondo touched off a scandal by pushing through pension reform legislation that handed a billion dollars of state worker money over to hedge funds with links to the conservative movement, which harvested eye-popping fees.

Brown would have to overcome steep odds, but he maintains that the race is closer than public polls show. And the Raimondo campaign’s decision to go negative in the days leading up to the September 12 primary — from a TV ad accusing her opponent of “money laundering” to attacks centered on the nuclear nonproliferation group he co-founded — indicate the race is indeed tightening. One mailer, funded by a pro-Raimondo Super PAC, showed an image of a nuclear explosion and read “Matt Brown Nuked His Own Nonprofit.”

She’s also taking it seriously enough to have gone out and acquired an endorsement from civil rights icon John Lewis, a congressperson from Georgia. But when Lewis later learned Raimondo was running against Brown, whom he called a “very, very good friend,” he said publicly that he regretted the endorsement.

FILE- In this Aug. 2, 2018, file photo, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, center, speaks with Lisa McGovern, left, and Betty Toye at the Pilgrim Senior Center in Warwick, R.I. Raimondo and U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Florida are among nine women running for governor who will face primary voters in coming weeks. No more than nine women have ever led states at the same time. (AP Photo/Michelle R. Smith, File)

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, center, speaks with Lisa McGovern, left, and Betty Toye at the Pilgrim Senior Center in Warwick, R.I. on Aug. 2, 2018.

Photo: Michelle R. Smith/AP

Despite her fundraising prowess, Raimondo is so unpopular she could lose the general election in the solidly blue state. However, former state Rep. Joe Trillo, who was President Donald Trump’s state campaign chairman, is running as an independent and could act as a spoiler, helping Raimondo’s re-election chances. Recent polls have her deadlocked with Republican candidate Allan Fung, who she narrowly defeated in 2014. That year, the Raimondo campaign spent about $6.3 million in a three-way race in which she won 41 percent of the vote. The same July poll found Brown 15 points behind the likely GOP challenger, but 45 percent of voters still hadn’t heard of him, meaning he could quickly gain ground by winning the nomination.

Raimondo’s head-to-head polling calls into question the conventional argument that centrist or pro-corporate candidates deserve support because they are more electable. “She’s taken millions in campaign contributions from Wall Street, fossil fuel industry, tobacco industry, lobbyists, corporations, tax breaks, and benefits from the state,” Brown said in an interview. “And she has, I think, raised a total of $7 million dollars now for this race and yet, as you point out, still a large majority of Rhode Islanders are looking for a different candidate with a different vision.”

Throughout her political career, Raimondo has also received thousands of dollars from the family that owns Purdue Pharma, a company widely blamed for fueling the opioid epidemic.

Brown’s campaign has sworn off corporate political action committee money, relying instead on individual contributions. The campaign boasts hundreds of volunteers that knock on doors and hold phone-banking sessions. In the first two months of the campaign, he said, they held over 70 events all across the state, “in people’s living rooms, talking to their friends and neighbors.” As for his policies, he’s running on “Medicare for All,” the creation of a public bank, tuition-free college, undoing Raimondo’s cuts to Medicaid, and a “Green New Deal.”

The gubernatorial hopeful has the backing of progressive groups like Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, Indivisible Rhode Island, and Rhode Island Progressive Democrats of America. Raimondo, on the other hand, is supported by nearly all local labor unions, Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island Political Action Committee, LGBTQ community advocates, and the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women.

Raimondo has refused to participate in even a single debate with her primary opponent. “She has funded her campaign with millions of dollars from Wall Street and corporations in an attempt to buy the election, while doing no debates with me about our records and our visions for the state,” Brown said. “So, it’s really — the kind of campaign she’s running is not democracy.” Raimondo told the Providence Journal she skipped out on debating because Brown is “not operating in good faith,” accusing him of telling lies.

The only conclusion one can come to when a candidate avoids debate, Brown said, is that the candidate has an indefensible record. “And in her case, it’s a record of always working for Wall Street and corporations at the expense of the people. It’s a record of cutting Medicaid and giving out corporate giveaways, handouts, out to handpicked corporations that are often her campaign donors,” he continued.

“It’s a record of taking money from the executives of a gas company and then turning around and announcing that we’re going to do ‘whatever we have to to make sure we’re successful here at building a fracked gas and diesel oil burning plant in Rhode Island,’ which would be bad for everyone in the state, bad for our future, bad for our children. The only one it’s good for is the corporation. The fracked gas corporation, they’d make a bundle off Rhode Islanders, and Gov. Raimondo gets campaign contributions from them in return.”

Historic primary victories, like that of Ayanna Pressley, who unseated a 10-term Democratic incumbent in Massachusetts, or Gillum’s victory in Florida, have energized him. “I think we’re on the verge of the next major upset in this battle for the future of the Democratic Party,” he said.

Top photo: Democrat Matt Brown, a gubernatorial hopeful and former Rhode Island secretary of state, greets volunteers at a nomination papers training event in North Kingstown, R.I. on July 3, 2018.

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