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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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I generally vote Democrat, NOT because I believe in "tax-and-spend," but because I am gay and will not vote to support socially conservative candidates who actively discriminate against me, my family, my friends and my neighbors. I would willingly split my votes in each and every election to support candidates who will eliminate waste and fraud in this state's budget if and only if the state Republican platform repudiates the national platform as regards social conservatism. However, so long as discrimination reigns in the GOP platform, I am forced to vote Democrat (or independent or moderate, if I am lucky enough to have candidates to vote for) time and time again, regardless of the corruption and incompetence.

Comment #1 by J. Ferreira on 2012 11 16

The RI Republican Party, like any party, must decide what it stands for and make that clear to the electorate. If that involves a break with the national party, then it must decide whether or not to make that break. If it retains its affiliation with the national party, then that is what the RI party stands for and must make clear to the electorate.

Having done that, the electorate gets to decide if it likes what the state party stands for. If yes, then the party continues. If no, then the party should collapse or rethink its positions.

This is not rocket science; it is the nature of the democratic process.

The only danger to the democratic process is the lack of a viable "opposition party".

Comment #2 by Charles Beckers on 2012 11 16

Newsflash J, The social issues should be left up to individual candidates and not the party. There are a variety of stances and opinions on social issues within the party, and the scope of problems in RI warrants a focus on the economy. By the way contrary to what you think Republicans are not lining up to discriminate against individuals who are gay. More lies from the left.

Comment #3 by Rhonda Bennett on 2012 11 16

thats true rhonda, I think hinckley was for gay marriage and he was republican,just saying

Comment #4 by anthony sionni on 2012 11 16

and what does the democtratic party stand for???

pro union , and that doesnt mean pro worker as in NEA.. anti student

partisanship - ciccilini , ree, et al vote 98% democrat

more and more entitlements even when not needed

health care for everyone even if we dont know what it costs

no cuts in social security even if its going broke.

quite a platform....

Comment #5 by jon paycheck on 2012 11 16

Republicans need to pay attention to the "have nots" in our society, because "have nots" get a vote just like the "haves". Until they embrace a fair playing field for everyone in all areas of our society they will face an uphill battle every election, unless the Democrats really screw up.

Comment #6 by Mark St. Pierre on 2012 11 16

The definition of a party is that it is a group of people (politicians) all of whom support a single platform. If individuals feel they cannot support all of the planks in that platform, then they are not (or should not be) members of that party. Either they form a separate party of like-minded politicians or they run for office as independents. That is, there are insiders and outsiders; there are people who are members of the party and subscribe to its tenets and there are people who are not members of the party by dint of not subscribing to the tenets of the party. Suggesting that individual politicians run as members of a party, but let ti be known that they do not subscribe to the tenets of the party is patently ridiculous.

Comment #7 by Charles Beckers on 2012 11 16

The Republicans would do well by being reliable fiscal conservatives (balanced budgets, fair tax system, economic opportunity, etc.) and social libertarians (individuals are free to make their own personal decisions).

The party of prosperity; the party of personal freedom -- that would be highly attractive to many people.

Comment #8 by Art West on 2012 11 16

I honestly believe that trying to get rid of RINOs has hurt the RI Republicans. I'm socially conservative and definitely lean that way economically, but I attend a Log Cabin event.

If Republicans in the state spent more time thinking of ways to build coalitions versus thinking "my way or the highway" they'd get a lot farther. It's not like the Democrats are some sort of unified political machine.

Comment #9 by Donn Roach on 2012 11 16

The math is on the side of Republicans in this state, any state or our nation. We live in a part of the country that is dominated by liberal ideology and unions. Unions have destroyed the economy of Rhode Island placing it into last place. The state is decaying from no businesses moving here. Republicans offer the only solutions to this problem but the people who live here reject those solutions because everyone works for the state, a city or town... or is connected to a union or public sector union in some way. I do not see this changing.

There are no more Reagan Democrats in Rhode Island who believe in God and family. They are either dead or don't vote for Republicans any longer. Now the atheists, ACLU, pro-choice crowd run the social policy of the state.

We need quality candidates but who is going to volunteer to be a kamikaze pilot? Not very many. Ken BLock is an ego-maniacal spoiler.. smart guy but not smart enough to know his presence produced our present Gov. who is a nationwide laughing stock. The reality is Rhode Islanders have expressed themselves: they are content with the rotten business climate, high taxes, corruption and crime pays in this state... especially is you are a politician with ties to the mob.

Comment #10 by Allison Westhaver on 2012 11 17

Donn, the big tent concept was used for several years and it doesn't work. If you can't stand for something you'll fall for anything. There have also been many attempts to put together even the broadest of platforms, which was also stopped. Leaving everything the status quo is clearly not working and those who want the party to be an open tent where all ideas are fine is what is holding the party back.

Comment #11 by guy smily on 2012 11 17

Mayor Avedesian is correct. The Republican platform needs to be changed to respect the Supreme Court on women's reproductive rights, but pledge to keep funding ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies, help expectant mothers who need it and their new children and to essentially adopt safe legal and rare which preserves all the voice of faith, all the conscience of the individual, and all our freedom from government intrusion and women from unique and offensive attention from the government. The RIGOP must act strongly or the committees will continue to be like church choirs that have to accept non-singers, but some of these Commitee joiners speak poison: secession, intolerance, accepting a level of government limited to sheriffs and soldiers. The "smaller government" dog whistle and extreme anti Supreme Court attitude has to go. Then we will attract more members, less extreme, less angry, more constructive.

Comment #12 by Michael Gardiner on 2012 11 17

Don’t be distracted by the “2 party” snow job at the state level. Self-serving, greedy professional politicians cannot solve our state’s problems. They are too busy raising money (bribes) from special interests to fund their next campaign, that’s their priority. So use your energy to focus on what your local politicians are doing to make your town a better place to live for your family. Ask your town officials what their vision is for your town, what their plan is for achieving that vision. If you really want to change things, start at home.

Comment #13 by Charles Marsh on 2012 11 21

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