Electability Is On The Ballot In Key Rhode Island House Primary

Democrats in the state’s more moderate House district are deciding who will take on a popular Republican former mayor.
The congressional campaign of former Cranston, Rhode Island, Mayor Allan Fung (R) has shaped the Democratic primary that will determine who takes him on in November.
The congressional campaign of former Cranston, Rhode Island, Mayor Allan Fung (R) has shaped the Democratic primary that will determine who takes him on in November.
David Goldman/Associated Press

Thanks to the upcoming retirement of Rep. Jim Langevin (D), the heavily Democratic state of Rhode Island could be the site of one of the country’s hottest general-election battles in November.

Langevin has represented Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District, which encompasses the state’s more conservative and rural western half, since 2001.

President Joe Biden carried the seat by 14 percentage points in 2020, but The Cook Political Report rated the race for the open seat a “toss up” in June.

The contest is expected to be close in no small part because the presumptive Republican nominee to replace Langevin is former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, a self-described moderate with a history of crossover appeal.

Democrats in Rhode Island will decide on Tuesday between six candidates to take on Fung in the general election: Rhode Island General Treasurer Seth Magaziner; former Langevin aide Joy Fox; former state Rep. David Segal; former Biden Cabinet official Sarah Morgenthau; refugee activist Omar Bah; and former state Rep. Spencer Dickinson.

Fung led all of his potential Democratic challengers in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup, according to a public poll conducted in June shortly before the Supreme Court ruling that overturned the constitutional right to an abortion.

“Allan Fung is not Donald Trump,” said Wendy Schiller, a political scientist at Brown University. “That’s the big challenge for Democrats to hold the seat. Can they convince voters that a vote for Allan Fung is a vote for [House Republican Leader] Kevin McCarthy and a vote for Donald Trump?”

With the most money and endorsements, Rhode Island General Treasurer Seth Magaziner (D) is the polling favorite in Tuesday's Democratic primary for an open congressional seat.
With the most money and endorsements, Rhode Island General Treasurer Seth Magaziner (D) is the polling favorite in Tuesday's Democratic primary for an open congressional seat.
David Goldman/Associated Press

A Democratic Scion Who Switched Races

Magaziner, who boasts the widest array of endorsements and the largest war chest, is the polling favorite.

“Even with undecideds, he’s got enough people who are going to affirmatively try to choose him,” Schiller said. “And increasingly in the last month, Democrats in that district have come to see him as the most competitive against Fung. Those Democrats are persuaded that this seat could give Republicans control of the House.”

Magaziner, who has overseen Rhode Island’s finances since 2014, has deep roots in Democratic politics ― both locally and nationally. Magaziner’s father, Ira, a successful management consultant, is best known for helming President Bill Clinton’s unsuccessful health care reform initiative in 1993 and 1994. Magaziner credits his family’s wealth for enabling him to lend his first campaign for treasurer more than $800,000.

As treasurer, Magaziner endeared himself to Rhode Island’s labor unions with his support for the creation of an infrastructure bank ― and to financial industry donors with his pursuit of aggressive, nontraditional investments for the state’s pension fund. (Magaziner maintains that he was simply seeking the best possible returns for retired state employees.)

Magaziner has also benefited from a head start on fundraising from an abandoned bid for governor that he launched in September 2021. He decided in late January to run for Congress instead, following Langevin’s announcement that he would be retiring.

Relieved not to have to choose between Magaziner and Lt. Gov. Dan McKee in the gubernatorial race, top Democrats, labor unions and other party-aligned groups quickly coalesced behind Magaziner’s congressional bid. The League of Conservation Voters Victory Fund, an environmental super PAC, has spent nearly $400,000 in support of Magaziner’s bid. And Magaziner stands to benefit from the support of Langevin, who endorsed him in June.

“It’s time to stop the fighting and get to work.”

- Sarah Morgenthau, Democratic congressional candidate

Magaziner is running on a relatively conventional Democratic platform. In his TV ads, he has emphasized his support for abortion rights and stricter gun laws, as well as his commitment to protecting Social Security and Medicare.

“I’m running for Congress because I want to make it easier for working people to get ahead and build a good, stable life,” he declared in a Sept. 1 debate.

There are signs, however, that Magaziner would resemble more business-friendly members of the House Democratic Caucus, though not quite to the extent of the party’s most conservative outliers. While he has picked up the endorsement of progressive Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, he’s also been endorsed by Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.), a prominent moderate.

Although Magaziner is refusing to accept contributions from political action committees affiliated with the gun, fossil fuel, and pharmaceutical industries, he has not forsworn money from all corporate PACs. And Web3 Forward, a super PAC that advocates for lighter regulation of the cryptocurrency industry, has spent over $162,000 on advertisements supporting Magaziner.

Magaziner has also distinguished himself from his rivals by criticizing Biden’s forgiveness of $10,000 in student debt for Americans earning under $125,000. He has said he prefers to reduce interest rates on loans, but told HuffPost in an interview that he would not vote against Biden’s debt cancellation if it were put to a vote in Congress and it was the only real reform on the table.

“What I’m very concerned about as well is that we fix the underlying structural issues about how higher education is financed, so we don’t end up in the same situation five years from now,” he said.

Joy Fox, left, a former aide to Rep. Jim Langevin, and former state Rep. David Segal, who founded a progressive group, are among the Democratic primary's underdog candidates.
Joy Fox, left, a former aide to Rep. Jim Langevin, and former state Rep. David Segal, who founded a progressive group, are among the Democratic primary's underdog candidates.
Candidate Campaigns/Facebook

Alternative Theories Of Electability

Other contenders have made the case that they are more electable against Fung than Magaziner would be. And in the event of an upset loss for Magaziner, Democrats will get a chance to test alternative theories of electability in a state where Democratic congressional candidates are less accustomed to contentious general elections.

Sarah Morgenthau, a former Department of Commerce official under Biden and Department of Homeland Security official under President Barack Obama, has raised the second-largest amount of money after Magaziner. They are the only two candidates who have been able to advertise on television.

Morgenthau, whose mother unsuccessfully sought the seat in 1988, is running more than anything on her identity as a woman and the possibility of becoming the first Democratic woman to represent Rhode Island in Congress. One of her TV ads features the lyrics “Roe, Roe, Roe, your vote” ― a reference to the overturned Roe v. Wade decision that created a constitutional right to abortion ― to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

“It’s time to stop the fighting and get to work,” she told HuffPost. “That’s what I’ve been about throughout my life and throughout my career.”

Morgenthau said she is the candidate best equipped to beat Fung because, among other things, she is “coming in with a heck of a lot of experience.”

But Morgenthau, a granddaughter of the New Deal-era Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, has considerable baggage. She owns a summer home in Rhode Island, but only made the state her permanent home recently in order to run for Congress.

“Rhode Island has been my home for 40 years,” Morgenthau insisted during a recent televised Democratic primary debate, noting her mother’s run for Congress in the area over three decades ago. “While my heart is here in Rhode Island, my experience has been everywhere ― and it’s exactly that experience that I will bring to bring back results for folks here in Rhode Island.”

Magaziner has a less striking residency problem of his own, having moved into the district from his former home on the east side of Providence in order to run in Rhode Island’s 2nd.

Magaziner said that his work as treasurer, which included school construction and clean-energy financing plans, have put him in touch with the district’s needs.

“I will put my hometown girl against his hometown boy all day long.”

- Joy Fox, Democratic congressional candidate

“I’ve worked in every city and town in the district to solve problems,” he told HuffPost.

By contrast, Fox ― a political consultant and former local journalist who also worked for former Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D), now the U.S. secretary of commerce ― touts her local ties. A resident of Warwick, Fox jokes that she doesn’t commute much beyond her family home in Cranston, where she and her mother are caring for a father with Alzheimer’s disease.

“I grew up in the city [Fung] was mayor of,” Fox said. “I will put my hometown girl against his hometown boy all day long.”

Fox also noted that she was part of the campaign team that helped Raimondo defeat Fung in two consecutive gubernatorial races.

The challenge for Fox is in letting enough Democratic voters know she exists, despite her small budget ― and convincing them she’ll be able to scale up in a competitive race come November.

“You could envision Joy Fox beating Allan Fung with money, because Joy Fox can use the national theme [of beating Republicans] and also claim the mantle of a local Rhode Islander who was born and raised here,” Schiller said.

Omar Bah, a political refugee from Gambia who founded a nonprofit that serves refugees in Providence, is a long-shot candidate who had raised less than $63,000 as of late August.

But he too has an electability case to make, arguing that a failure to nominate him risks ceding a portion of nonwhite voters to Fung, with whom they may identify because he has Chinese ancestry.

“If Allan Fung goes against Seth Magaziner or any other white candidate, he will take a large chunk of people of color from the Democratic Party who otherwise would have voted for me,” Bah told HuffPost.

Langevin's impending retirement in Rhode Island's 2nd District has raised fears of a GOP takeover. He has endorsed Magaziner over Fox, his former aide.
Langevin's impending retirement in Rhode Island's 2nd District has raised fears of a GOP takeover. He has endorsed Magaziner over Fox, his former aide.
Alex Brandon/Associated Press

A Case For Progressive Populism

The policy differences between Magaziner, Fox, Morgenthau and Bah are relatively modest ― and not a major focus of their respective bids.

Dickinson and Segal, by contrast, are making an ideological case, albeit from opposite ends of the spectrum. Dickinson argues that the Democratic Party has moved much too far to the left, prompting centrist and conservative voters to leave the party.

Dickinson has sparse policy material on his campaign website, but he does name “closing” the U.S.-Mexico border as his highest priority.

“If the President won’t do it, then the Congress must,” he declares. “Use the Army if necessary.”

Segal, who founded the advocacy group Demand Progress and is backed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), has carved out the progressive lane in the race, running as a foe of “corporate special interests and political corruption.” Segal’s platform includes the standard array of left-wing policies, including support for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.

But Segal also emphasizes his record of building bipartisan coalitions for liberal goals like reducing the power of big technology firms and ending U.S. support for the Saudi Arabia-led invasion of Yemen. And he insists that without a populist critique of a rigged economic and political system, Democrats are at a disadvantage against Fung.

“The general election here needs to be taken really seriously,” Segal said. “The way to do that is to nominate somebody who has a 20-year record of taking on outsize corporate power. This is a really popular fight.”

Rhode Island has a history of electing Democrats with socially conservative tendencies. Until recently, many top Democrats in the state legislature supported gun rights and restrictions on abortion access.

Segal nonetheless hopes to appeal to the state’s sizable population of working-class voters, some of whom have shown a receptiveness to a populist message. The state’s Democratic primary voters opted for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential primary. Some of Sanders’ biggest margins were in Warwick and Cranston, key population centers in Rhode Island’s 2nd. Sanders endorsed Segal last Thursday.

“The way to do that is to nominate somebody who has a 20-year record of taking on outsize corporate power. This is a really popular fight.”

- David Segal, Democratic congressional candidate

What Segal lacks in TV advertising, he could make up for in grassroots support, which carries greater weight in low-turnout races. Segal’s campaign released an internal poll earlier this month that showed him gaining ground on Magaziner. And the Working Families Party has since spent more than $87,000 on paid phone banking and digital ads in support of Segal’s bid.

Finally, the mysterious super PAC Ocean State Forward has emerged as a wild card with a last-minute spending spree in the race’s final days. The group, whose funders and agenda are unknown, has spent more than $102,000 on direct-mail literature attacking Magaziner.

“Seth Magaziner claims to be a progressive Democrat who fights for working families, but he has taken more special interest campaign cash than any candidate for Congress,” one mail item alleges.

Ocean State Forward is run by Democratic political operative Jennifer May. But the attack mirrors the critiques of Magaziner that national Republicans have already made.

“Allan Fung led the Cranston comeback and has proven that one-party rule is hurting Rhode Islanders whose cost of living has surged with Democrats in control,” Samantha Bullock, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement. “There couldn’t be a greater contrast between Fung and Silver Spoon Seth Magaziner, whose political career is bankrolled by his rich dad while he works to deliver for his Wall Street friends.”

Regardless of the race’s outcome on Tuesday, national Democrats are preparing to nationalize the general election and paint Fung as a foot soldier for Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). Fung gave the party some ammunition when he welcomed McCarthy in person to raise money for him in Rhode Island in August. He also attended McCarthy’s national GOP donor retreat in Wyoming later in the month.

Fung, who opposes late-term abortions and public funding for abortions, has said that restricting abortion would not be a priority for him in Congress. “In Rhode Island, they’ve already spoken about this issue,” Fung told The Boston Globe, referring to the state’s codification of abortion rights in 2019. “And I’m not running to try to change the laws on abortion.”

But Fung would not commit to supporting federal legislation codifying abortion rights, which Democrats see as grounds enough to brand him an abortion rights opponent.

“Fung is an anti-abortion empty suit who would be a rubber stamp for Kevin McCarthy’s dangerous agenda to cut Social Security, do Donald Trump’s bidding, and ban abortion nationwide,” James Singer, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told HuffPost in a statement.

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