Rhode Island SD #11 Special Election – January 5, 2016

Much has been written about those state legislatures where Republicans have overwhelming and historic majorities, especially in places where Democrats were in control only a decade ago.  However there are some states where Democrats are dominant, perhaps nowhere more so than in the Rhode Island State Senate.  Democrats control 32 of the 38 seats in that body, and they are probably favored to pick up another seat on Tuesday in what is the first state legislative special election of 2016.

In 2010, Dr. Christopher Ottiano (R) defeated incumbent Democratic Senator Charles Levesque in this Portsmouth-area district in the southeastern part of the state.  He ran unopposed for re-election in 2012 and faced opposition only from an independent candidate in 2014.  However Sen. Ottiano resigned his seat last fall after being named the medical director for a large health insurer in the state.

Party primaries were held on December 1st.  On the Democratic side, Portsmouth Town Council Vice-President Jim Seveney defeated two other candidates with 68 percent, while attorney John Pagliarini won a three-way Republican primary with 51 percent.  There will also be an independent candidate on the ballot, Greg Blythe.

Voter registration in the district is overwhelmingly unaffiliated (55% of voters), with only 29% registered Democrats and 16% Republican.  About 17% of each party’s registered voters cast ballots, although under Rhode Island’s semi-closed primary system, unaffiliated voters are able to vote in a primary which results in them becoming members of that party.  There were twice as many votes cast in the Democratic primary as in the Republican one.  Furthermore, outgoing Sen. Ottiano explicitly endorsed the Democratic nominee, Mr. Seveny, even before the primaries, stating that he held him in high regard despite him being in the other party.

So, if Mr. Seveney has way more campaign experience, a solid voter registration edge, and the endorsement of the outgoing officeholder (from the other party, no less), why am I not convinced this will be an easy victory for him?    In short, it’s the district.  This is a fairly Republican area, at least for Rhode Island.  To understand this, I summarized the precinct-level data from within the district for all major races from the 2014 General Election, and compared them to the statewide totals, as can be seen below:

2014 Rhode Island Election Results

Other than the State Treasurer’s race and the three-way contest for Governor, the major GOP candidates performed 3-9% better in SD #11 than they did statewide.  Republican House candidate Cormick Lynch came within 100 votes of incumbent Congressman David Cicilline (D) in SD #11, but lost elsewhere by almost 20 percent and 30,000 votes.  And Republican Attorney General candidate Dawson Hodgson lost by 14% statewide to Democratic incumbent Peter Kilmartin, despite finishing just 250 votes behind in SD #11.

I realize this sounds obvious, but a special election held the Tuesday after a long holiday break is all about turnout.  Those who vote in this race today are the most dedicated and committed voters, and today’s electorate will very different from that which votes in November.  There are plenty of Republican voters in this district, and historically, Republican voters are very dedicated.  I have found that the strong GOP bias in special elections is less evident in New England than in the rest of the country, but it’s still present.  The Democratic candidate is probably the favorite to win this seat, but I’ll be surprised if it isn’t close.

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