PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Rhode Island voters are deciding Tuesday whether Democratic Gov. Dan McKee will get to serve his first full term in office or if they want a change in leadership.
Republican challenger Ashley Kalus often says it’s time to change direction, while McKee says he helped the state’s economy recover from COVID-19 and can continue the momentum.
If elected, McKee would help his party maintain its control over the top statewide offices. All of the posts are currently held by Democrats. He’s seeking his first full term in office after taking over in March 2021 when two-term Gov. Gina Raimondo was tapped as U.S. commerce secretary.
Kalus, if elected, would be the state’s first Republican governor since 2011. Voters in Rhode Island are choosing the next governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer, as well as who will serve in the U.S. House, the state Legislature and local offices.
With the retirement of longtime Democratic Rep. Jim Langevin, the state’s 2nd Congressional District is open for the first time in two decades. Langevin wants Democratic Treasurer Seth Magaziner to take his place, but Republicans are eyeing the seat as a possible pickup opportunity. Republican candidate Allan Fung, a former Cranston mayor, is well-known in the district.
McKee, the former lieutenant governor, is a heavy favorite in the liberal state as both a Democrat and incumbent, who was endorsed by a host of large unions. He has tried to differentiate himself from Kalus by talking about how he’s a lifelong Rhode Islander with decades of public service in the state. Kalus is a business owner and political novice who moved to the state last year.
Like Democrats nationwide, McKee also worked to keep abortion rights front and center in the campaign and convince voters that he would champion reproductive rights. McKee ran an ad portraying Kalus as the “anti-choice” politician who would follow the lead of former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, take the state backwards and limit abortion access.
Though Kalus has called herself “pro-life” and said she does not support “taxpayer-funded abortions,” she said the Supreme Court decision will have no impact in Rhode Island because the right to an abortion was codified into state law in 2019 and the vast majority of residents supported that law. She accused McKee of being a “desperate career politician” who was lying because he feared losing.
Kalus is trying to convince voters that McKee is an insider politician who is beholden to special interests. She seized on the fact that the FBI is now investigating the awarding of a controversial state contract and criticized McKee over the approval of public financing for developers. She told voters she would end the “I know a guy system” in Rhode Island and help working families.
Kalus, who owns a COVID-19 testing company that is suing the state over a canceled contract, moved to Rhode Island last year from Illinois and previously worked for former Illinois Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. She bought a home in Newport, registered to vote in Rhode Island as a Republican in January and declared her candidacy in March.
With a week to go before the election, profane texts were shared with media outlets that Kalus sent a contractor in 2018 and 2019 in Chicago. Kalus was upset over construction delays and billing disputes when she was opening a new medical office with her husband. Kalus defended the texts to WPRO, saying they show she and taxpayers will not be taken advantage of if she’s elected governor. The McKee campaign said the texts show Kalus is wrong for Rhode Island.
Independent candidates Zachary Hurwitz and Paul Rianna and libertarian Elijah Gizzarelli are also on the ballot. Early voting began Oct. 19 and concluded Monday. Nearly 150,000 residents cast their ballots early in-person in the November 2020 general election, accounting for about 30% of the vote.