In liberal Rhode Island, Republican Alan Fung has a chance to win a seat in the US House and potentially help his party gain control of the chamber.
There is only one Republican in New England’s congressional delegation, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. Fung saw an opportunity to break the Democratic Party’s three-year hold on Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District seat when longtime Democratic Rep. Jim Langevin announced his retirement this year.
Despite Fung’s momentum, some political observers say it’s still hard to fathom a Republican pulling off such a big win in Rhode Island. But many others say it’s a toss-up or think Fung could have a slight lead over Democrat Seth Magaziner. Also on the ballot is moderate candidate William Gilbert.
“All the ingredients are there for the right Republican to win this district, and Alan Fung is the right Republican,” said Wendy Schiller, a professor at Brown University and director of the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Fung said, “I want to be a part of bringing back that moderate Republican leadership that’s missing from Congress across New England right now.”
Magaziner, the state treasurer, says a vote for Fung will empower House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and far-right Republicans to adopt extremist policies because Fung won’t stand up to them. McCarthy visited Rhode Island to raise money for Fung.
“I will fight against the extremists who are trying to subvert our democracy, cut Social Security and Medicare,” Fung said during a recent debate. “He wants to put them in charge of the Congress. I won’t let that happen.”
Nationally, Democrats are facing headwinds for the election as voters blame President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party for inflation. Fung is laser-focused on inflation — in ads, debates, conversations with constituents and interviews, he talks about the cost of groceries and home heating oil. He says Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are to blame and wants to cut federal spending.
Fung is known throughout Rhode Island for serving as mayor of the state’s second-largest city, Cranston, from 2009 to 2021, and running for governor twice. She lost both times to Democrat Gina Raimondo, now the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.
He projects the image of a moderate New England Republican by comparing himself to another popular Republican in a liberal neighboring state, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker.
Fung also talks about how he would work with Democrats, pointing to shared priorities like investing in infrastructure and creating US jobs. Fung said he supports Biden’s hard-fought $1 trillion infrastructure law, as well as the CHIPS and Science to Revitalize Domestic Manufacturing Act.
Magaziner is also well-known, having twice won statewide elections. He was elected treasurer in 2014 and re-elected in 2018. He has the state Democratic establishment behind him and support from national Democratic leaders. US Labor Secretary Marty Walsh spoke at a rally and First Lady Jill Biden campaigned for him.
Emily Lynch, an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island, said there’s nothing Magaziner has or hasn’t done that affects him negatively — “it’s that pressure, the negative views on the economy that affect the party in power. “It will be a very close race, he said.
Magaziner has worked to keep abortion front and center in the campaign. He said that unlike Fung, he would fight any attempt to remove women’s rights.
“I trust women to choose whether or when to have children,” Magaziner said in their discussion. “He thinks it should be up to politicians and judges.”
Fung said he would not support a national abortion ban and supports legislation proposed by a bipartisan group of senators that seeks to codify the right to abortion and protect access to contraception after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade.
“I do not support a national abortion ban. I never said it, I would never vote for it, I would never criminalize it,” Fung said.
“I would protect a woman’s ability to make that deeply personal decision within a time frame and reserve late-term abortions for the life of the mother, rape or incest,” she added. “So I would support this bill that has been proposed on the Senate side.”
The Congressional Leadership Fund said it has put $2.8 million into the district to support Fung and oppose Magaziner because Fung’s strength as a candidate combined with a Democrat dropping out “gave us a real chance to win a seat that Democrats thought they could take for granted.”
Democrats have also invested heavily in the race, spending about $2.4 million through the House Majority PAC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the DCCC said Wednesday.
Among Rhode Island registered voters, 44% are Democrats, 41% are unaffiliated and 15% are Republicans, according to state data.
Parts of the 2nd Congressional District are more conservative than you might expect. In the western part of the state, the cities of Foster, Glocester and Burrillville are “about as red as the Northeast,” said Adam Myers, an associate professor at Providence College.
The Republican-leaning neighborhoods were moved into the district from U.S. Rep. David Cicilline’s district during redistricting a decade ago. Critics at the time said the changes appeared engineered to help Cicilline’s re-election efforts. Biden won the district by about 14 points in 2020.
The state’s Democratic establishment has proven more effective than Republicans in the past at mobilizing voters on Election Day. Magaziner has it going for him, Myers said.
“It’s hard for me to see a Republican candidate winning in a 14-point district these days,” Myers said. “But I wouldn’t put much money on it.”