PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND — Conventional wisdom suggests that the Rhode Island gubernatorial race will come down to incumbent Gina Raimondo (D) and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung (R) — just as it had four years ago.
But one critical thing has changed since 2014, when Raimondo narrowly defeated Fung, 40.7 percent to 36.2 percent: Donald Trump is president.
Hoping to pull off an incumbent upset in November, Fung has distanced himself from Trump throughout the campaign. Why? For starters, Rhode Island is a Democratic trifecta — meaning, the party controls all three branches of government. And Trump is a very unpopular president.
Republicans distancing themselves from Trump isn’t unique to Rhode Island. National lawmakers, Republicans included, tend to distance themselves from the president after he says something offensive.
But while some Republicans like to separate themselves politically, they usually align policy-wise. Fung, for example, reportedly agrees with Trump’s immigration policy. He blasted Raimondo because Rhode Island is a sanctuary state, which he believes enables crime. (The claim that an influx of immigrants results in an influx of crime has been dunked by research.)
“Unfortunately, under Governor Raimondo, Rhode Island had the highest murder rate in the region in 2016. … When I’m Governor, we will not be protecting criminals who are in this country illegally, period,” said the Fung campaign in a news release. “We will not be a sanctuary state, and I will fight against sanctuary cities like Providence.”
Despite this stance on the state’s sanctuary status, Fung is popular with the Latinx community.
“Latinos in Cranston — they vote for Allan Fung because he connected with the community,” Reynaldo Almonte, of Latino Public Radio, told ThinkProgress, admitting it’s surprising to outsiders.
Fung told ThinkProgress that he hasn’t spoke with Trump this campaign season. He said he’s not going to “say anything” to Trump, about campaigning or otherwise.
“He’s focusing on Senate and House races and I’m focused on Rhode Island,” Fung told reporters on primary day Wednesday.
“Look, I’m a Republican… the president is doing a good job in the economy, but I act in my own way. I have a 10 year record of results of doing it the right way in how I’ve done it, and I’m going to continue to do that as governor,” he added.
There’s a reason for Fung’s professed independence. Trump lost the state of Rhode Island by 16 points in 2016. And though the Mayor has courted Trump voters in the state, he has been noticeably careful to mention the president as little as possible closer to the primaries.
Fung would rather associate himself with Republicans who are more moderate and have a record of working with Democrats.
“If you take a look what’s going on just north from us with Massachusetts and Charlie Baker, that’s the kind of leadership I’m going to bring,” said Fung.
Fung would also rather talk about Raimondo, likely because the race was so close the last time around.
“Allan Fung, I think, is going to be a little more careful this time. I don’t think he wants to be pushed as far to the right as he was in 2014,” veteran pollster Joseph Fleming told the Providence Journal in 2017.
Fung is facing off against State House Minority Leader Patricia L. Morgan in Wednesday’s primary, while Raimondo is currently in a tight race with Matt Brown, a former Rhode Island secretary of state who’s positioned himself as the progressive candidate. If Brown wins on Wednesday, various Fung supporters told ThinkProgress that centrist Democrats who voted for Raimondo will likely vote Republican.
“You see a rift between progressives and old guard [Democrats], and you might see old school Democrats go Republican,” Rhode Island voter Hillary Costa told ThinkProgress.
Wednesday’s primary comes down to turnout. And the weather (thanks to Hurricane Florence) may prompt people to stay at home. There were long lines four years ago at Nathan Bishop Middle School, where Raimondo voted on Wednesday, and this year doesn’t compare, various voters told ThinkProgress.
People were excited to vote for Raimondo, citing a variety of reasons, like her experience and investment in schools.
“She’s a progressive leader,” Raimondo voter Jeff Gregston told ThinkProgress, pushing back against criticism that she isn’t left enough. “She’s a real supporter of marriage equality and women’s rights, obviously.”
Others voting outside Nathan Bishop Middle School said she knows how to lead because she’s been doing it for four years, unlike her challenger and the president, and is better positioned to defeat Fung.
Raimondo told reporters she’s optimistic about the primary, but ultimately will vote for the Democrat if she loses.