The two Republican CD1 candidates have been pretty quiet. There’s a reason for that.

Either Gerry Leonard or Terri Flynn will represent the GOP on the ballot in November. Whoever wins faces an uphill battle.

By: - September 1, 2023 5:21 pm

Only 14% of Rhode Island’s registered voters are Republicans. (Canva image)

Fraud investigations. Allegations of illegal super PAC coordination. Vocal debates. And one of the biggest spenders dropping out with a little more than a week before the Sept. 5 primary

In the leadup to the Sept. 5 primary, Democrats seeking to fill the open seat for Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District certainly have drawn their share of controversies and headlines this summer.

On the Republican side, meanwhile, news and campaigning between former Middletown Town Councilwoman Terri Flynn and Jamestown retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel Gerry Leonard has been relatively quiet — save for televised candidate profiles, stops in and around their hometowns, and one short press conference in Providence.

In first press conference, GOP CD1 candidate rails against Jane Fonda endorsement of Regunberg

Both campaigns were repeatedly contacted by Rhode Island Current throughout the primary seeking in-depth interviews. Flynn initially expressed an interest, but could not find time in her schedule. The Leonard campaign also initially entertained the idea, but did not respond to additional messages seeking to arrange a meeting. 

Leonard also declined to fill out candidate biographies for either the Rhode Island Current or Providence Journal, though his campaign website highlights his 30 years of service in the U.S Marine Corps.

That stealth response is kind of by design in a state where only 14% of registered voters are Republicans, said Maureen Moakely, a political science professor at the University of Rhode Island (URI). The biggest reason: because of the national party’s loyalty to Donald Trump.

“They have to walk a fine line between not criticizing Trump and sort of tepidly supporting him,” Moakely said. “That creates a lot of dissonance in terms of the candidates.”

For most candidates, Republican or Democrat, Moakely said the reason for running is all about one thing: name recognition for the future.

“They’re running to enhance their profile — a lot of them know they’re not going to win,” she said. “They don’t want to alienate.”

Rhode Island’s registered Republicans number 19,733 compared to 287,636 registered Democrats — or 40%.  The biggest swath of voters — 46% — are unaffiliated with either party.

“Parties are way less effective than they used to be,” Moakley said. “It’s been diminishing for years. [Even] the Democratic Party in Rhode Island is not as powerful — the fact they didn’t endorse anyone is a very telling fact.”

Republican 1st Congressional District candidates Terri Flynn, left, and Gerry Leonard, right, are shown in their separate interviews for a forum recorded at Rhode Island PBS on Aug. 24. (Screenshot/Rhode Island PBS)

GOP infrastructure and the role of parties

Another reason for under the radar campaigning from the two Republicans stems from how little money the Rhode Island GOP has to work with.

“There’s a real resource problem,” said Gary Sasse, a registered Republican who is the founding director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University and a member of No Labels, an organization that supports centrism and bipartisanship. “Candidates are pretty much on their own to raise money.”

Sasse said having more money allows the party to better attract strong candidates and promote them, which can make elections more competitive. 

Last year, outside groups spent more than $5 million in support of former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung’s election against Seth Magaziner — a race Fung lost by nearly 8,000 votes.

There’s a real resource problem. Candidates are pretty much on their own to raise money.

– Gary Sasse, founding director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University and a member of No Labels, an organization that supports centrism and bipartisanship.

Rob Horowitz, a Providence-based political consultant and adjunct URI professor, said the national party had interest in the race since Fung “had name recognition” and because 2022 was seen as a “Red Wave” for congressional republicans.

“I doubt they’re going to invest nationally in this race,” Horowitz said of the election for the 1st Congressional District. “Flynn and Leonard would have to raise money on their own.”

Leonard, the state GOP-endorsed candidate, reported $111,082.62 cash on hand as of Aug. 16, according to the latest reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. The Jamestown Republican boosted his campaign with a $50,000 personal loan, alongside $40,284.13 from individual donors. He spent $10,508.62.

Flynn, who did not seek her party’s endorsement, did not raise or spend enough money (more than $5,000) to be subject to financial disclosure rules in the pre-primary reporting period.

What candidates do have to work with is the support of local Republican committees. Leonard announced on Thursday he was given backing from Republican committees in 11 of the 19 municipalities that make up the 1st Congressional District.

Committee endorsements show party support in the primary, but ultimately means nothing in the long run, Moakely and Sasse both said.

Sasse added that in the age of social media and super PACs, candidates are better off trying to raise money through donors or outside sources rather than relying on the party.

“The world has changed,” he said.

Horowitz rejected that view, saying party endorsement will likely play a role in who Republican voters support in the primary for the 1st Congressional district.

“You’re looking at a race with probably 10,000 to 20,000 votes,” he said. “Either candidate isn’t spending much money or appearing on television.”

District makeup

Rhode Island’s political landscape also isn’t doing the GOP any favors. Part of that comes down to how the districts themselves are shaped, especially in the race for the 1st Congressional District. 

The Cook Political Report’s 2023 Partisan Voting Index found that the 1st district is 12 points more Democratic than the national average, while the 2nd district is only four points higher than the average.

A big reason for that is because the district consists of more urban and coastal communities, which tend to have more Democratic support.

“CD1 is a gerrymandered, Democratic district,” Sasse said.

Just because the district favors Democrats doesn’t mean there won’t be a significant number of GOP votes, Horowitz said.

“If you look at the Blackstone Valley — you have a pocket of more conservative voters,” he said. “If someone like Leonard has some appeal, there’s some potential — but you’re still fighting uphill.”

Republican Terri Flynn speaks during her five-minute slot in front of an audience of over 100 people who attended a 1st Congressional District candidate forum Monday, Aug. 28, 2023, at Innovate Newport. Her opponent Gerry Leonard did not attend the event. (Janine L. Weisman/Rhode Island Current)

National vs. state politics

Rhode Island has seen its share of Republican leaders in the past, with 16 years in the governor’s office between the administrations of Lincoln Almond and Donald Carcieri in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Sasse said those elections were won because Republicans were “able to demonstrate they’re more pragmatic” and “ran on principle,” a logic he said also applies to the Republicans who hold office in Rhode Island’s General Assembly.

The Rhode Island Republican Party will need to appeal to the state’s large swath of unaffiliated voters on Primary Day. (Canva image)

In the State House, there are nine GOP representatives in the 75-person chamber. The Rhode Island Senate consists of five Republicans in the 38-person body.

But running for a national office means candidates have to side more with national policies, which focuses more on polarizing issues like abortion restriction and culture war issues. That does not play well with independents, who comprise the biggest swath of Rhode Island’s electorate, Sasse said.

Flynn and Leonard  did not stray too far from the national GOP’s messaging against offshore wind investment and support for tax cuts when they participated in back-to-back interviews recorded separately at Rhode Island PBS on Aug. 24.

Where the two differed was on the validity of the 2020 election. Leonard was quick to say “Joe Biden is our duly elected president.”

“President Trump’s attorney general said the same thing, Vice President [Mike] Pence said the same thing,” Leonard said, adding that he did not vote for president while active in the Marine Corps. 

Flynn called the comments from former Attorney General William Barr a “he said, she said.”

“I’m not going to make a judgment or opinion because I don’t have that binder that has all that information,” she said.

On abortion, Leonard said during the taping that the issue should be left up to states. Flynn was not asked about abortion during the forum, but said in a questionnaire with the American Civil Liberties Union that if the issue were at the federal level, “the conversation would have to include how I would best represent the district that elected me.”


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Christopher Shea
Christopher Shea

Christopher Shea covers politics, the criminal justice system and transportation for the Rhode Island Current.