ITíS A TELLING indication of the challenge facing Rhode Island Republicans that the GOPís most aggressive effort in a generation to gain legislative seats might result in meager progress. Regardless of the outcome, the real question is whether leaders of the stateís perennially anemic minority party will be able to maintain their organizing efforts through future election cycles.
Republican Party chairwoman Patricia Morgan, who is mounting her own active challenge for the West Warwick legislative seat held by House Speaker William J. Murphy, has reason to be somewhat upbeat, considering the high number of GOP hopefuls for the General Assembly. In a sample of her sales pitch, Morgan says, "All of our candidates are incredibly competent, talented, and ethical people, and the people of this state should give them a chance to serve them, because they will do a great job. Our state is suffering under the imbalance of power that exists in the General Assembly."
The template of attacking the dominance of legislative Democrats on Smith Hill comes with considerable support from Governor Donald L. Carcieri ó who, if he wins a second term in 2006, will have two more election cycles in which to build the number of Republican representatives and senators. The popular governor posed for photos with GOP candidates at the State House, stoking the campaign message that he needs more help to get much of anything done. The would-be insurgents buzz with a few focused talking points ó taxes are too high in Rhode Island; the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature backed an unconstitutional casino measure; and prior to a gubernatorial veto that went unchallenged, the ruling Dems backed a $20 million subsidy to help former representative Vincent Mesolella build a Providence hotel. Most impressively, after not mounting a meaningful legislative challenge since 1983, Republican (as well as a smaller number of independent) candidates are running in 60 of 75 House races and 29 of 38 Senate contests.
Democrats face competitive races in a smaller number of districts, particularly where incumbents have yielded seats or Republicans have waged close challenges in the past, and most observers think the GOP could pick up a few seats in each chamber. Then again, if the past is any record, the Republicans have typically followed up increased election activity ó like in 1983, when a special election after a redistricting mess tripled the number of Republican senators, from seven to 21 ó with a return to dormancy.
Itís no surprise, then, how Democrats bristle at suggestions that the two-party imbalance in the General Assembly is a recipe for trouble. "Sour grapes is what it is," responds Bill Lynch, chairman of the state Democratic Party. "I donít see those Republicans complaining about Republicans dominating the US Senate or the US House. This is nothing more than grasping for some issue they hope will resonate with people. They have no positive plans or goals. All they keep do is keep chanting the governorís mantra over and over. I think people see they right through that in the local communities where they know their senator and rep personally."
Republicans say their plans for increasing General Assembly representation extend beyond the current election cycle. Just the way in which Ken McKay, the governorís chief of staff, has been detailed to the effort shows a new degree of commitment. "I already have plans for the period after the election," Morgan says. "There needs to be a multi-year election strategy. Iíve been thinking for months for what needs to be done to get us ready for 2006," including making more energetic efforts to reach out to minority communities.
Matt Wojcik, a GOP marketing specialist with roots in Cumberland, acknowledges that handicapping this election is "a scary thing to predict," although he cites "a real desire for change" on the part of the electorate. Wojcik says about 18 House races, and five or six in the Senate, could be closely contested. Putting a positive spin on the situation, he says that Republicans would rather not get so many seats that they would have a hard time defending them. It would be better, he says, to make incremental gains, developing a record upon which to base future races. Of course, he adds, "If lightning were to strike, Iím not sure we wouldnít celebrate."
Still, it did little to help Republican aspirations when lawyer and former prosecutor J. Patrick OíNeill defeated former House Speaker John B. Harwood in the Democratic primary in September, knocking the Pawtucket representative out of the seat he held since 1980. Harwoodís defeat strengthened the hand of Murphy, who succeeded him as speaker in early 2003. And while Wojcik cites the presence of three effective parties in the House ó the Murphy majority; Republicans; and a dissident Democratic faction led by John DeSimone (D-Providence) and Rene Menard (D-Lincoln) ó the defeat of Harwood, who had hopes of reclaiming the speakership, probably diminishes the GOPís ability to influence the situation.
"Voters are still in a mood for change," says Brown University political science professor Darrell West, pointing to how a number of incumbents representatives, including a roughly equal number of supporters for Murphy and DeSimone, fell during the September primary.page 1 page 2
Issue Date: October 29 - November 4, 2004
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