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GOP Leaders Past & Present: How to Save the Rhode Island Republican Party

Friday, November 16, 2012


This dismal performance of Republican candidates in last Tuesday’s election has led critics to suggest that the Rhode Island GOP is on life support, but current and former leaders say a shift in priorities and improved messaging could help put the party back on track.

The party was left staggering last week when its already tiny presence in the state legislature shrank from 18 members down to 11 and all three of its federal candidates failed to come within ten points of their Democratic opponents.

But while some party members have attributed the Democratic dominance to having President Obama at the top of the ticket, others say local candidates were doomed by a national party that has moved too far to the right.

“When a good candidate like Brendan Doherty can be vilified and made into someone who does not care about women or seniors, and a candidate like Councilman Jim Donohue in Cranston does not get re-elected, it shows that the national brand hurts Republican candidates in Rhode Island,” said Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, a Republican.

Avedisian, who cruised to re-election with more than 80 percent of the vote, is widely considered to be a viable candidate for a statewide office in 2014, but he has also caught flack from conservatives for supporting his close friend Governor Lincoln Chafee. He said the party was “tremendously successful” when it encouraged women to run for office and said he believes the key is to make it clear to Rhode Islanders that local Republicans “genuinely care about the environment, the poor, and the less fortunate.”

Doherty Spokesman: A Simpler Message Needed

But that pitch is easier said than done, as Doherty learned this year. The former superintendent of the State Police, Doherty ran a spirited campaign in the 1st Congressional District, but was walloped by embattled Congressman David Cicilline, who successfully tied Doherty to what he constantly referred to as the “extreme” Republican agenda.

Doherty campaign manager Ian Prior said there is no question that Cicilline’s messaging damaged his candidate. He agreed that the focus on social issues has alienated women and young people, but said a larger problem is that Republican messaging isn’t helping to recruit new members to the party.

“The GOP message has gotten off kilter a bit given the change in demographics,” Prior said. “With more young people and minorities voting, the message of smaller government and lower taxes, while sound policy, is simply not going to energize these demographics and encourage them to become Republicans. Rather, the message should be simpler - the Republican party is the party of opportunity and innovation.”

Governor Chafee: Good Policy & Politics

The demographic problem is nothing new to Rhode Island Republicans. In 2006, Chafee, a former Republican U.S. Senator who has since become an Independent, saw the writing on the wall when Republicans in socially liberal parts of country were being attacked for the national party’s stance on social issues.

By the time he was up for re-election, Chafee said most his own party’s leaders were supporting his primary opponent, Steve Laffey, who ran far to Chafee’s right. Chafee said he believes he only won that primary because of the Independents and admitted that the costly race softened him up for Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, who ultimately won the election.

“It didn’t make any sense,” Chafee said. “My opponent had zero chance to win in the general election. He probably would have fared the same as the Republicans did last Tuesday.”

Since winning his gubernatorial race in 2010 with the support of most progressive groups, Chafee has been criticized by conservatives for supporting a plan to offer in-state tuition to illegal immigrants and for arguing in favor of same-sex marriage legislation. But Chafee maintains that he’ll be vindicated in the long run, particularly on the immigration issue.

Chafee noted that Cicilline’s victory was thanks in large part to overwhelming support in Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls, three immigrant rich communities.

“I think it’s good policy but it’s also good politics,” he said of engaging minority voters.

Robitaille: “The numbers are just overwhelming”

For former Republican gubernatorial candidate John Robitaille, the problem for the state GOP isn’t where it stands on the issues; it’s math.

Robitaille said he wouldn’t recommend attempting to re-brand the local party and argued that In Presidential election years, the national contests carry the brand all the way down the ticket. He said the party’s struggles last week had more to do with state’s population shifting to the left than it did with weak candidates, lack of funding or bad messaging.

“In future elections, Republican statewide candidates will definitely be competitive in three or four way races,” Robitaille, who isn’t ruling out a run for Governor in 2014, said. “I am not so sure today, with the current make-up of the electorate, a Republican statewide candidate can win decisively against any Democrat. The numbers are just overwhelming.”

GOP activist Michael Napolitano, who served as Robitaille’s spokesman in 2010 and this year headed up an effort to elect Republicans to the General Assembly, said the party simply needs to do a better job at defining itself.

“I think a political party can brand itself without lying to voters,” he said. “It does seem that this tactic works for them as David Cicilline used it on John Loughlin in 2010 as well. I think we need to be very aggressive in defining ourselves and not allow the Democrats to get away with these statements. It can’t just be done in a press conference or a news release. It needs to be part of an overall strategy and combined with an advertising campaign.”

Napolitano said he understands that social issues are a factor, but noted that Robitaille’s second place finish to Chafee in 2010 proved Rhode Islanders are willing to support social conservatives. He said the key is to keep the focus on jobs and the economy

“We need to focus on educating our voters,” he said. “Government doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem and it is getting worse.”

West: GOP Brand is Weak in New England

Still, other say the party in its current makeup is doomed in Rhode Island.

Ken Block, the chairman of the Moderate Party, said his goal is to recruit candidates in the “political middle,” but suggested the primary process both nationally and locally has been damaging to both Republicans and Democrats. He compared Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s shift to the right during his primary to the way Rhode Island Democrats allow “progressives and unions” to dominate local primaries.

“You have the fringes of the parties dominating the primary process,” he said.

Darrell West, Vice President of Governance Studies and Director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., painted an even bleaker picture for state Republicans.

“The only thing that will bring the Republican party back in Rhode Island is a large Democratic scandal,” West said. “Historically, that is when the GOP has made its greatest in-roads. It is hard for the party to be competitive and it is more challenging now due to the sharp move right on the part of the national party.”

For West, a more moderate Republican party might be its only hope for survival

“The Republican brand is weak throughout New England and unless the party moves closely to the center, it will be difficult for the state GOP to be competitive,” West said.


Dan McGowan can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan.


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