Democrats looking for weak spots in the midterm defense of their House majority probably didn’t expect to find one in deep-blue Rhode Island. Nevertheless, one of Rhode Island’s two congressional seats remains highly competitive late in the campaign, with former Cranston mayor Allan Fung, the Republican nominee, stubbornly remaining a few points ahead of the Democratic nominee and state treasurer, Seth Magaziner. The race is shaping up to be a test of the prospects for centrist-leaning Republicans to succeed in Democratic-leaning districts—or any district.
Fung is a relentlessly friendly, pro-business political overachiever. A Providence-born son of immigrants, he exudes gratitude for the opportunities afforded to his family. A four-term mayor of Cranston and two-time GOP gubernatorial nominee (in 2014 and 2018), Fung has focused his campaign on kitchen-table issues like home-heating expenses for the approaching winter and the high grocery bills and gas prices squeezing the middle class.
Magaziner, a diffident if not undistinguished candidate, is the son of high-powered Clinton-era policy advisor Ira Magaziner, whose client list includes the likes of General Electric and the governments of Ireland and Sweden. Like all Democrats in 2022, Seth Magaziner is running hard against the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision last June, which returned abortion law to the legislative branch, and the “threat to democracy” that Republicans supposedly represent. He has suggested that Fung is an extremist who supports imprisoning women and doctors who carry out abortions and has pointed out that Fung expressed support for Donald Trump by briefly donning a Make America Great Again hat.
The portrait of Fung as an ultra-MAGA (or is it “mega-Maga” now?), however, is not very convincing. Fung’s ads feature an almost comically impatient and energetic candidate, who crumples up scripts on a soundstage in disgust and strides off set to “get to work.” Locals remember him working in his parents’ restaurant as a child, standing on a milk crate to wash dishes. As mayor of Cranston, he presided over the revival of a fiscally troubled, underperforming satellite of Providence, landing it on some “best places to live in the U.S.” lists. Fung won his last election by a two-to-one margin by concentrating on improving business opportunities, while soft-pedaling hot-button social issues.
In his congressional campaign, Fung has expressed support for “European-style” abortion regulations, a disarming response for voters who may not be aware of the relative restrictiveness of European abortion laws compared with most states’ current laws. Officially, Fung is a “pro-choice but personally opposed” Catholic in the mold of Joe Biden and other Catholic Democrats until Dobbs. He has not taken his opponent’s bait to voice regrets for his past support of Trump; nor has he acknowledged the premise of his opponent’s accusations that he will be a lock-step supporter of Kevin McCarthy, the presumptive Speaker of a Republican-controlled House after the November election. An earnest, first-generation American in a state with relatively little violent crime and racial tension, Fung remains a doggedly non-confrontational, happy warrior for his neighbors, and plainly likable, even to his local political adversaries.
With polls as close as they are, it’s far from certain that Fung will win, especially in a state with such a decisive Democratic advantage in party registration. A recent stream of negative mailers and television ads targeting him may succeed in bringing persuadable Democratic Party members home on November 8. Still, Democratic strategists can’t afford to be overconfident this cycle, even in a state that has not had a Republican member of Congress since 1994.
A Fung victory may suggest that the Democratic strategy of boosting MAGA supporters in the Republican primaries made some sense—since such an opponent, in November, would surely have proved easier to defeat in Rhode Island. Or it may just be that a well-known candidate with a solid record is not vulnerable to one-size-fits-all attacks on GOP candidates. Either way, Fung’s performance in the polls thus far suggests a broader problem for Democrats’ ability to hold on to middle-class voters who expected help with bread-and-butter issues like inflation—not performative crusades to save them from MAGA’s alleged threat to democracy.
Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images