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RI political history tells us to hedge bets

January 2, 2013

With a new year comes the inevitable round of Rhode Island political prognosticating. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says anybody who says they know what is going to happen probably doesn’t.

The past often provides a roadmap to the future. This is the case with Rhode Island political predictions. Every election cycle one candidate or another becomes “`the lock,’’ the overwhelming favorite to become the next governor or senator or congressional representative

What we are here to tell you as the new year dawns and election cycle speculation accelerates is to beware the pollsters, pundits, political science professors and politicians. And don’t put stock in predictions from Democrats, Republicans or moderates.

Rhode Island’s long and florid political history tells us that our state’s voters are adept at confounding the early predictions. And the favored politicians all too frequently play along by running desultory campaigns that doom them.

So let’s run the reel back a few years. What is remarkable about Rhode Island politics is how often the “can’t lose’’ candidates, the front-runners of  18 to 24 months  away from an election, have gone down to ignominious defeats.

This front-runner syndrome has played out in U.S. Senate and congressional elections, but has been most pronounced in elections for governor.

At the beginning of the 1972 cycle, it appeared that  Republican John Chafee, the former governor,  was headed for a U.S. Senate victory over Democratic incumbent Claiborne Pell; one respected poll had Chafee up 20 points. When the votes were counted that November, Pell, buoyed by growing opposition to the Vietnam War, handily defeated Chafee.

In 1976, everybody who is anybody in politics figured the U.S. Senate matchup would be between then-Gov. Phil Noel, a Democrat, and Chafee. Then Noel lost the primary to Richard Lorber, a wealthy, little-known car dealer who spent a fortune. Lorber lost to Chafee.

Flip the remote to 1980. At the beginning of this campaign, Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci, then a Republican, had a shot to become the next governor. He was clobbered by Democratic Gov. Joe Garrahy, the genial master of the outstretched hand and the hi-how-are-ya.

In 1984, all the experts pegged Warwick Democratic Mayor Joe Walsh as the next governor. Walsh, who had the Democratic Party endorsement, never got out of a caustic primary against Gen. Treasurer Anthony Solomon, who lost to Republican Ed DiPrete, the Cranston mayor.

By 1990, the chattering classes and the pundits anointed Providence Democratic Mayor Joe Paolino as the odds-on governorship choice. Paolino had the party endorsement, but he never made it out of the primary, losing to businessman Bruce Sundlun, who crushed DiPrete.

All those elections were for two year governor terms. But in the aftermath of the banking crisis, the General Assembly, prodded by the business community, moved to 4-year terms. Cianci was back again, this time in his second reign as mayor, riding the crest of the Providence Renaissance.

But the Democrats who ran the General Assembly didn’t want Cianci bringing his pay-to-play political brand to the State House (it turned out some Democrats were running their own), so the Assembly shifted the new four-year governor terms to the capital city’s mayoral cycle. That meant that Cianci had to give up running for mayor if he wanted to contest the governorship. He never did.

By 1994, Sundlun’s approval ratings were imploding. Republican Congressman Ron Machley appeared to be on a path to be the state’s first 4-year term governor. Machtley had the GOP endorsement and support from such top Republicans as John Chafee. But Macthley lost the primary to Lincoln Almond, who narrowly won the State House over Democrat Myrth York.

When Almond’s two terms were up and the 2002 cycle rolled around, Democratic Atty. Gen. Sheldon Whitehouse was the consensus choice for governor. Whitehouse lost the primary to York, who was defeated by Republican Don Carcieri.

As the New Year’s Eve champagne toasts heralding 2010 were poured, Gen. Treas. Frank Caprio was the front-runner for governor. Caprio crashed after telling President Barack Obama to “shove’’ his endorsement and independent Linc Chafee ended up with the big office on the 2nd floor of the State House.

And the one element all the self-appointed experts agreed on at the beginning of the 2012 election was that the Providence financial mess had ended any chance for Congressman David Cicilline’s reelection. He, of course, waltzed to victory.

After you sing Auld Lang Syne tonight and the talk turns to who is likely to be the next governor, all the insiders will have opinions. Gina Raimondo, you say. How about Angel Taveras? Maybe Alan Fung?

Before you make a predtiction, remember the words of the Bible: “The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong…but time and chance happeneth to them all.’’

Don’t bet money on your pick. And have a happy, healthy and peaceful 2013.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics’ blog at




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