Welcome back to District Rundown, a biweekly series analyzing some of the nation’s top House races. This edition, coming just three weeks before election day, covers the race in Rhode Island’s 2nd district, which has recently moved to center stage. Split Ticket moved the seat from LEANS DEMOCRATIC back to TOSSUP last week, a decision that will be explained at the end of this article.
When one thinks of viable GOP targets, Rhode Island’s 2nd (Biden +13.6) is not the first district that comes to mind. Its Democratic heritage has traditionally prohibited Republican inroads. Since 2001, for instance, retiring Congressman Jim Langevin has faced zero competitive races. In fact, Republicans have not won Rhode Island’s western House seat since Claudine Schneider’s last reelection in 1988.
Source: Dave’s Redistricting App
But the district itself, like its history, also seems inhospitable for even the best Republicans. The 2nd’s Biden +13.6 presidential lean makes it the second bluest seat in Split Ticket’s TOSSUP column, falling just behind Texas’s 34th. This seat is predictably the redder of the two in Rhode Island, taking in the western half of the state that partially mirrors Connecticut’s neighboring 2nd.
In terms of population distribution, Rhode Island’s 2nd is very much a creature of New England’s partiality for small to medium-sized towns. The three most populated municipalities in the district, Providence (partial), Cranston, and Warwick, account for about 47% of the seat’s total population. They collectively backed Joe Biden by 23.6 points in 2020.
That’s a big feather in the Democrats’ cap, especially when combined with the lesser-populated, but solidly-blue, towns running south along the Narragansett Bay. Those communities, like North and South Kingstown, have actually bucked the 2nd district’s trends, moving visibly leftward between the 2012 and 2020 presidential elections.
Source: Dave’s Redistricting App (Swing 12/16 to 16/20 President)
The western half of the district, spearheaded by the towns of Johnston and Coventry, makes up its persistent, if disadvantaged, Republican base. These municipalities, along with their bluer counterparts Cranston and Warwick, trended rightward between the Obama and Trump eras. Following the national pattern, Trump also managed to slightly trim lopsided Democratic margins in Providence through Hispanic outreach.
Besides the 2nd’s limited minority population in northwest Providence and eastern Cranston, the district is heavily-white. In terms of class-background, the favorable Republican trends in the western half of the seat have been driven by white working class voters. Trump’s 2016 performance in nearby Connecticut’s Windham County provides similar contextualization for these ongoing changes in political preference.
Wealthy suburbanites also form an important constituency in the 2nd, mirroring their role in other northeastern House seats. Those voters, who generally benefit from above-average levels of educational attainment and reside in swing precincts, have shied away from the national GOP during the Trump-era but remain open to supporting moderate local Republicans.
Unlike most districts around the country, Rhode Island’s seats were practically-untouched in redistricting. The biggest surprise from the cycle actually occurred in reapportionment, when Arizona was denied a 10th seat and Little Rhody avoided becoming an At-Large constituency.
Let’s now take a look at why the 2nd district is not just a viable GOP target, but an excellent one.
Democrat Jim Langevin dropped a bomb on his party’s expectations when he decided to retire heading into the 2022 cycle. His move marks the departure of two decades’ worth of experience and a strong electoral record of outrunning the top of the ticket in presidential cycles. One could say that Langevin himself pushed the 2nd district onto the midterm board.
While the incumbent’s retirement closed the door on a LIKELY DEMOCRATIC race, it opened a new one for General Treasurer Seth Magaziner to drop his challenge against appointed Governor Dan McKee while staying in his party’s good graces. Magaziner easily won the 2nd district Democratic nomination against two progressive challengers.
On the other side of the aisle, the GOP scored one of its best House recruits anywhere in the country: Allan Fung. As a moderate Republican, two-time gubernatorial candidate, and former Mayor of Cranston, Fung is well-suited to neutralize some of the inherent advantages that Democrats enjoy in the 2nd district. The addition of an untested opponent like Magaziner could also boost Republican chances.
Moderate Party candidate William Gilbert is another fixture on the November ballot, and has performed decently in the latest polls. Should the survey data apply next month, Gilbert would almost certainly hold either Magaziner or Fung to a plurality victory.
One of the most important signs of Republican competitiveness in the otherwise-Democratic 2nd district is the polling average. At the beginning of October, three surveys were publicly-released in the seat, providing an excellent look at the current state of the race. The signals generally bode poorly for Magaziner and the Democrats, but there are some important caveats.
For one, Fung’s polled vote share has fallen between 43 and 46% in each of the recently-available surveys. While the Republican’s leads suggest that he is ahead of Magaziner as of now, they do not ensure that he will be able to win outright once the remaining undecideds break. That is not an insinuation that every unsure member of the electorate will decide against Fung, but rather an acknowledgement that the 2nd district’s makeup still favors Magaziner on its face.
Nevertheless, Democrats should still be very concerned with Fung’s trajectory in the 2nd district. Even if Republicans lose, few pundits believe that the GOP floor will not surpass the bare minimum set by Trump in 2020. Magaziner’s failure to exceed 40% in the three latest surveys, including a Democratic internal from the Mellman group, has also sparked worry.
Due in large part to Fung’s late-breaking momentum and Magaziner’s stagnant position in the polls, national Democrats have sounded the alarm on the 2nd district. Magaziner’s backers had previously spent around $275,000 on the race, allowing themselves to be outpaced by Republicans. Expect those numbers to change over the next three weeks as Democrats seek to avoid a potentially-embarassing blue-seat loss, even if it ends up being a mirage.
In terms of candidate warchests, Magaziner has outraised Fung $2.3 to $1.2 million. Both contenders have roughly $1 million left on hand as campaigning enters the homestretch. Well fundraising advantages typically give one candidate a decided benefit over his or her opponent due to increased airtime, anomalies can occur. Any observer on the ground, for instance, would be inclined to give the momentum advantage to Fung as it stands currently.
If it wasn’t apparent already, Split Ticket decided to shift its rating in RI-02 from LEANS DEMOCRATIC to TOSSUP because there is no longer enough evidence to consider Magaziner a clear favorite. In fact, all of the publicly-avaiable polling indicates that Fung is ahead, even if just temporarily. Besides the numerical evidence, it is clear that Fung’s unique qualities as a candidate have meshed with Langevin’s retirement to create a perfect storm in a seat that should be a comfortable edition to the Democratic column.
BENCHMARKS AND EXPECTATIONS
The tone of this article suggests that Split Ticket considers Fung a favorite to win in November, but that is not necessarily the case. In fact, our bet would still be on Magaziner if we had to pick. Why? The partisan lean of the 2nd district will be tough to overcome for any Republican, even Fung.
He might be ahead right now, but that does not mean much when he hasn’t reliably polled at the 48% mark. Perhaps that will change between now and November. If, however, Fung stagnates at roughly 46% on election day and most of the undecideds go Magaziner’s way, the most likely outcome would be a plurality Democratic victory by around 3 points.
That’s not to say Fung cannot surprise the political community with a victory. After all, he did post impressive overperformances in Cranston during both of his losing gubernatorial bids (2014, 2018). Given that his home city is one of the 2nd’s important Democratic communities, narrowing the gap there could supplement the western Republican turf enough to deliver victory. All told, the key to Fung’s success lies in high GOP turnout, enthused white ticket splitters, formerly-Democratic WWC voters, and persuadable Hispanics in Cranston and Providence.