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Split Personality Politics: National Political Polarization’s Impact on State Candidate Positions

Image via Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

Although the November midterms will not involve voting in a president, these elections will prove monumental in determining Republicans’ and Democrats’ control over Congress. While the Democrats currently hold a majority in both the House and Senate, these positions may shift. Rhode Island’s 2nd congressional district election is one of about two dozen highly competitive battles that will determine control in the US House of Representatives. Having to appeal simultaneously to both the partisan national parties backing them and the often more politically-moderate local populations who must vote them in, Republican and Democratic midterm candidates have been cautious about appearing too radical through either their affiliation with national party representatives or strong stances on polarizing national issues like abortion rights. The 2022 midterms will be a litmus test for both political parties heading into the next presidential election in two years, and the results will be a harbinger of what is to come in the political future. 

Midterm elections generally serve as a referendum on the party in power—currently the Democrats—when displeased or apathetic moderates and the frustrated voter base of the minority party—currently the Republicans—can vote to express their displeasure with the current administration. Midterm elections usually leave the White House in a somber state. According to historical trends examined by UC Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project, the president’s party typically loses an average of 28 House seats and four Senate seats in these off-year elections.

At the beginning of 2022, the political consensus was that Democrats would certainly face major losses during the midterms—possibly losing both the House and Senate due to Biden’s fluctuating approval ratings and the struggling national economy. A “red wave” was predicted, given that Republicans are in a prime position after redistricting and only need to flip five seats to capture the House majority. FiveThirtyEight currently claims that Republicans are slightly favored to win the race, but the verdict is not that simple.

In the past couple months, the nation has seen falling gas prices amidst signs easing inflation, a number of recent legislative victories for President Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats, and the Supreme Court’s summer ruling that eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion, all of which may result in voters favoring Democratic candidates. Republican control of the House is “no longer a foregone conclusion,” according to the Cook Political Report, and “the Senate majority is up for grabs,” says Inside Elections. Regardless of the possibility that Democrats will maintain control over Congress, it is still thought by many experts that Republicans will ultimately lead slightly in the House while Democrats do the same in the Senate. 

Situated amongst these political circumstances is Rhode Island’s 2nd congressional district race, deemed a “Democratic toss-up” by the Cook Political Report, where Democratic candidate Seth Magaziner, the state’s general treasurer, will be running against Republican former mayor of Cranston Allan Fung. Presently, both of Rhode Island’s two congressional districts have been held by Democrats since 1994. Fung’s unexpectedly strong candidacy, however, may flip the seat. A collaborative Suffolk University and Boston Globe June voter poll determined that “Fung—buoyed by residents unhappy with the state’s economy and President Joe Biden’s leadership—led five of the six Democrats in one-on-one ballot tests by about ten points each, but only led Democratic frontrunner Seth Magaziner by six points, 45%-39%, with nearly 17% undecided.” According to US News, this election has national Republican leaders thinking this is their best chance to flip the seat in more than three decades. 

Adding to the newfound uncertainty around both parties’ future control of Congress is the Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which has spurred Democratic voter turnout and potentially muddied the accuracy of the aforementioned polls. A largely nationalized issue, this debate on abortion rights has been brought up by many midterm campaigns, usually in the favor of Democrats. In Rhode Island, where 63 percent of adults say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, it is possible that, similar to the surprising rejection of a Kansas constitutional referendum aimed at banning abortions in the state, turnout may yield unexpected results. 

Speaking on the national implications of the 2nd congressional district race, chair of the University of Virginia’s political science department, Professor Jennifer Lawless, joined Providence’s GoLocal LIVE to break down its significance. “At the end of the day, this is a race about party and party control, and it has a lot less to do with Allan Fung and Seth Magaziner than it has to do with Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy and whether people want Republicans or Democrats in control of the House of Representatives,” said Lawless. 

Lawless brings up Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy due to his support for Allan Fung, who has pushed his moderate views as a central point of his campaign. Politico reports that “House Republicans’ main super PAC is booking $125 million in TV ad reservations in roughly 50 media markets across the country—a massive down payment on the party’s bid to wrest back the majority this fall.” One of these benefactors is Fung, claims Axios. However, in a statement responding to the criticism he received for his relationship with McCarthy, Fung emphasized his moderate stance, stating “I’ve been clear about how in representing the District first and foremost, I won’t always be with the mainstream of the party on certain issues.” 

Fung’s strategy of stressing moderate stances is being practiced by Republican candidates all over the country. ABC News points to Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania to exemplify this phenomena. “Oz is running for Senate with former President Donald Trump’s backing but, when asked by ABC News’ Linsey Davis if he considers himself a ‘MAGA Republican,’ he responded by embracing a different m-word. ‘I think I’m a moderate leader, but not passive,’ Oz said.” Similar strategies are also being adopted by Republican candidates in Georgia and Colorado.

In response, Democrats reject the idea that their opponents should qualify as moderates, particularly if they are supported by Trump; refuse to rule out backing him if he runs again; or if they support the Supreme Court justices who agreed to overturn Roe. In fact, Democratic candidate Seth Magaziner has called his Republican opponent an extremist. In a political advertisement, Magaziner claimed that Fung would “pass a national abortion ban,” pointing out Fung’s opposition to the 2019 Rhode Island law protecting the right to an abortionand concluding that Fung is “another yes man for a Trump-extremist agenda.” 

Similar to how Trump affiliation could hinder Republicans’ campaigns, Biden affiliation can hurt Democrats’ prospects. NBC News analyzed this phenomena: “Democrats are walking a tightrope in characterizing their ties to Biden, which might seem counterintuitive considering the streak of legislative victories that have won the president a slew of positive headlines and helped his approval rating to start ticking back up.” 

David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, has claimed that “President Biden’s involvement could actually hinder the eventual Democratic nominee, who must thread the needle of connecting with undecided voters who believe the Rhode Island economy is awful, while supporting President Biden’s agenda which is seen as detrimental to that very economy.” Paleologos’ logic may be correct. In August, The Providence Journal asked candidates whether they think Biden should run for re-election in 2024. Magaziner’s response, via spokeswoman Patricia Socarras, avoided answering the question, instead affirming Magaziner’s stances on various issues. As Magaziner’s campaign painted Fung as a Republican extremist, so has Fung to Magaziner. Fung’s political director Steven Paiva claimed in a tweet that “Seth and his extreme radical friends advocate for elective late-term abortions” and that Magaziner “is so desperately scared to discuss the failed Pelosi Biden economic record.” Both candidates have focused on appearing more moderate while accusing the other of extremism. 

Though it is common for candidates to portray themselves as more moderate in their respective political parties, increasing partisan polarization over both national candidates and issues, along with the national implications of the upcoming midterms, make watching midterm candidates navigate their campaigns especially enthralling. Rhode Island’s 2nd congressional district election demonstrates this tendency to lean politically moderate, with all candidates hesitant to firmly align themselves with either Trump or Biden, in addition to softer stances on relevant social issues. Regardless of whether or not these candidates, along with the countless others beginning to shift to a more “moderate” political appearance to appeal to local voters, are truly moderate is uncertain. The increasing divide between how candidates must present themselves at a national versus a local level, however, speaks to the growing separation between federal politics and what voters want changed. 

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