Rhode Island Democrats Are On Track to Hand GOP a Midterm Advantage

Rep. James Langevin’s retirement calls into question the Democrats’ current redistricting map.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 06: A view of the U.S. Capitol during morning rush hour on Wednesday morning October 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will try again on Wednesday to advance a debt-ceiling suspension bill that Republicans have vowed to block via the filibuster. Congress has until October 18 to raise the debt ceiling or risk default that would have widespread economic consequences. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
A view of the U.S. Capitol during morning rush hour on October 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Rhode Island legislators are on track to finish their redistricting process in the coming weeks. Earlier this month, the Democratic-leaning advisory commission recommended a slate of maps to the full state legislature, which has the authority to modify the commission’s work before final passage. Those maps, which create two districts that are nearly identical in shape and composition to the state’s current congressional districts, were relatively noncontroversial at the time of their recommendation.

But U.S. Rep. James Langevin’s announcement this month that he plans to retire has set off a scramble to determine his successor and called into question the wisdom of the maps currently slated for passage. The open-seat race for Langevin’s former district may give the GOP an opening in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican to Congress in over two decades.

Local Republican officials have expressed hope that the combination of an open-seat race, the potential for a Republican wave in 2022, and the expected entrance of a strong candidate — former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung — could be enough to tip the race in their favor. Rhode Island GOP Chair Sue Cienki told the Providence Journal that the seat as currently drawn represents “a winnable race with the right candidate.”

Democrats, for their part, appear to have been caught flat-footed by Langevin’s announcement. With no obvious successor, a laundry list of potential candidates have been floated for the seat. The wide open nature of the race has stoked fears that a messy, drawn-out primary could ensue, weakening the eventual winner before the general election.

The Rhode Island General Assembly, which is run by Democratic supermajorities in both chambers, could neutralize the problem by making modest changes to the proposed congressional maps. But changes that would shore up the Democratic-leaning 2nd Congressional District infringe on the territory of David Cicilline, a senior U.S. representative and junior member of House leadership who holds the dark-blue district containing the majority of the Providence metropolitan area and the liberal eastern parts of the state.

Langevin, who first won election in 2000, has not faced a competitive race during his 20-plus years in office. While the 2nd District has long been viewed as safe Democratic territory, it moved right during the Trump era, with Langevine facing the closest reelection battle of his career in 2020. Langevine ultimately won the race with a comfortable 17-point margin, but the district’s steady rightward shift could move the race into competitive territory as soon as the next election cycle. The 110,000 votes Langevin’s most recent opponent, Robert Lancia, won in 2020 would have been enough to capture the district during the last GOP wave election in 2014, when Langevin won the seat with only 106,000 votes.

Even before the shifts of the Trump era, the district maintained an independent streak that is common among Northeastern electorates. Rhode Island’s second-largest city, Cranston, anchors the 2nd District and hasn’t elected a Democratic mayor in over a decade, despite breaking heavily for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden on the presidential level. Fung, the city’s popular former mayor — whose third and final term ended at the beginning of 2021 — is widely seen as the front-runner for the Republican nomination should he choose to enter the race. During Fung’s ill-fated race for governor in 2014, he managed to eke out a win in the parts of the state that constitute the 2nd Congressional District.

Despite the building potential for a competitive race, there is no sign that the Rhode Island legislature intends to use its authority to adjust the boundaries on the proposed redistricting maps. The advisory commission’s suggested map hews closely to the current district boundaries, leaving Cicilline with the lion’s share of the state’s Democratic voters. (The commission, whose recommendations are nonbinding, is composed of appointments by state legislative leaders.)

Through any number of modest changes to the current map, the legislature could make the 2nd District substantially more favorable for Democrats.

According to FiveThirtyEight’s redistricting tracker, the currently proposed 2nd District, which contains the western half of Providence County and Kent and Washington counties, maintains a notable Democratic lean. Meanwhile, the 1st District retains its hold on much bluer territory around the northern and eastern Providence metropolitan area and in the liberal counties of Bristol and Newport to the southeast. This split leaves the 1st District substantially more Democratic — at D+32 (FiveThirtyEight’s competitiveness metric), its lean is nearly double that of Rhode Island’s D+17 2nd District. Only a handful of districts nationwide are safer for Democrats.

Through any number of modest changes to the current map, which already messily bisects the city of Providence and the state as a whole from north to south, the legislature could make the 2nd District substantially more favorable for Democrats. Cranston’s 80,000 residents — Fung’s base of support — could easily be offset by drawing other parts of Providence and its northern and western suburbs into the 2nd District, or some of Cranston could be moved into the 1st District. Democrats could also reverse the changes they made in the last redistricting cycle, when they moved the southern parts of Providence, where many of the state’s voters of color reside, into Cicilline’s district and exchanged them for large portions of the northwestern part of the state.

Keeping a clear majority of the state’s Democrats in his district gives Cicilline an advantage in future statewide races. As one of the state’s two members of the House of Representatives, Cicilline would be heir apparent should either of the state’s sitting senators, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, choose to forgo reelection in the next decade. And if Rhode Island were to lose a representative because of population decline in the next census, Cicilline would be more likely to keep the seat.

In statehouses across the nation, redistricting battles are going better for Democrats than many analysts had previously expected. The 2022 midterms will likely play out on maps that are comparable or even slightly more favorable to Democrats than current maps, though experts anticipate that Republicans will retain a moderate advantage overall. With just five seats separating the GOP from control of Congress’s lower chamber, the smallest of factors could tip the balance of power in Washington next year.

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