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Electability Is On The Ballot In Key Rhode Island House Primary

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Because of the upcoming retirement of Rep. Jim Langevin (D), the heavily Democratic state of Rhode Island might be the positioning of one among 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 competition is predicted to be close in no small part since the presumptive Republican nominee to switch Langevin is former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, a self-described moderate with a history of crossover appeal.

Democrats in Rhode Island will choose Tuesday between six candidates to tackle Fung in the final 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, in response to a public poll conducted in June shortly before the Supreme Court ruling that overturned the constitutional right to an abortion.

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

With essentially 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 biggest war chest, is the polling favorite.

“Even with undecideds, he’s got enough people who find themselves going to affirmatively try to decide on him,” Schiller said. “And increasingly within the last month, Democrats in that district have come to see him as essentially 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 funds since 2014, has deep roots in Democratic politics ― each 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 greater than $800,000.

As treasurer, Magaziner endeared himself to Rhode Island’s labor unions along with his support for the creation of an infrastructure bank ― and to financial industry donors along with his pursuit of aggressive, nontraditional investments for the state’s pension fund. (Magaziner maintains that he was simply in search of the very 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 as an alternative, following Langevin’s announcement that he could be retiring.

Relieved to not have to choose from Magaziner and Lt. Gov. Dan McKee within 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 learn 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 comparatively conventional Democratic platform. In his TV ads, he has emphasized his support for abortion rights and stricter gun laws, in addition to his commitment to protecting Social Security and Medicare.

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

There are signs, nevertheless, 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 outstanding moderate.

Although Magaziner is refusing to just accept contributions from political motion committees affiliated with the gun, fossil fuel, and pharmaceutical industries, he has not forsworn money from all corporate PACs. And Web3 Forward, an excellent 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 cut back rates of interest on loans, but told HuffPost in an interview that he wouldn’t vote against Biden’s debt cancellation if it were put to a vote in Congress and it was the one 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 find yourself in the identical 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 many Democratic primary’s underdog candidates.

Candidate Campaigns/Facebook

Alternative Theories Of Electability

Other contenders have made the case that they’re more electable against Fung than Magaziner could be. And within the event of an upset loss for Magaziner, Democrats will get a probability to check 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 sum of money after Magaziner. They’re the one two candidates who’ve been capable of advertise on television.

Morgenthau, whose mother unsuccessfully sought the seat in 1988, is running greater than anything on her identity as a girl and the potential for becoming the primary Democratic woman to represent Rhode Island in Congress. Certainly 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 profession.”

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

But Morgenthau, a granddaughter of the Recent Deal-era Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, has considerable baggage. She owns a summer home in Rhode Island, but only made the state her everlasting home recently with a purpose 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 realm over three a long time ago. “While my heart is here in Rhode Island, my experience has been in every single place ― and it’s exactly that have that I’ll bring to bring back results for folk 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 Windfall with a purpose 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 contact with the district’s needs.

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

– Joy Fox, Democratic congressional candidate

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

In 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 town [Fung] was mayor of,” Fox said. “I’ll put my hometown girl against his hometown boy all day long.”

Fox also noted that she was a 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 have the option to scale up in a competitive race come November.

“You might envision Joy Fox beating Allan Fung with money, because Joy Fox can use the national theme [of beating Republicans] and likewise claim the mantle of a neighborhood 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 Windfall, is a long-shot candidate who had raised lower 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 could discover because he has Chinese ancestry.

“If Allan Fung goes against Seth Magaziner or some other white candidate, he’ll take a big chunk of individuals 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 never a significant focus of their respective bids.

Dickinson and Segal, in 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 go away 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 crucial.”

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

But Segal also emphasizes his record of constructing bipartisan coalitions for liberal goals like reducing the facility of massive technology firms and ending U.S. support for the Saudi Arabia-led invasion of Yemen. And he insists that and not using a populist critique of a rigged economic and political system, Democrats are at an obstacle against Fung.

“The overall election here must be taken really seriously,” Segal said. “The option to try this is to nominate any person who has a 20-year record of taking over outsize corporate power. This can be a really popular fight.”

Rhode Island has a history of electing Democrats with socially conservative tendencies. Until recently, many top Democrats within 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, a few 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 in the course of the 2016 presidential primary. A few of Sanders’ biggest margins were in Warwick and Cranston, key population centers in Rhode Island’s 2nd. Sanders endorsed Segal last Thursday.

“The option to try this is to nominate any person who has a 20-year record of taking over outsize corporate power. This can be a really popular fight.”

– David Segal, Democratic congressional candidate

What Segal lacks in TV promoting, 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 greater 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 within the race’s final days. The group, whose funders and agenda are unknown, has spent greater 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 money than any candidate for Congress,” one mail item alleges.

Ocean State Forward is run by Democratic political operative Jennifer May. However 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 on top of things,” Samantha Bullock, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in an announcement. “There couldn’t be a greater contrast between Fung and Silver Spoon Seth Magaziner, whose political profession is bankrolled by his wealthy dad while he works to deliver for his Wall Street friends.”

Whatever the race’s consequence on Tuesday, national Democrats are preparing to nationalize the final 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 boost money for him in Rhode Island in August. He also attended McCarthy’s national GOP donor retreat in Wyoming later within the month.

Fung, who opposes late-term abortions and public funding for abortions, has said that restricting abortion wouldn’t 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 vary the laws on abortion.”

But Fung wouldn’t commit to supporting federal laws codifying abortion rights, which Democrats see as grounds enough to brand him an abortion rights opponent.

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

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