Rhode Island governor faces primary challenger from left

(Reuters) – Rhode Island’s governor is the latest Democrat to face a challenge from the party’s left-wing flank ahead of November elections as she heads into a hard-fought nominating contest on Wednesday, one of the last of the year.

FILE PHOTO: Democratic candidate for Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo speaks at a campaign rally with United States first lady Michelle Obama in Providence, Rhode Island, U.S., October 30, 2014. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

Gina Raimondo, 47, a former venture capitalist, is battling for her party’s nomination for a second term against Matt Brown, an anti-nuclear activist and nonprofit executive who served as Rhode Island’s secretary of state from 2003 to 2007 and has sworn off corporate donations.

Leftist Democrats have been gaining momentum in nominating contests for the Nov. 6 elections in which the party is seeking to regain control of the U.S. Congress and bolster its representation in state governments across the country, where Republicans control a majority of governorships and legislatures.

Among candidates who have pulled off upsets are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, who both defeated longtime incumbents in congressional primaries in New York and Massachusetts and have promised to target Republican President Donald Trump’s policies.

Voters also chose candidates who ran from the left in Democratic gubernatorial nominating contests in Georgia and Florida. In New York’s Democratic state primary on Thursday, activist and former “Sex and the City” co-star Cynthia Nixon is challenging Governor Andrew Cuomo.

FILE PHOTO: Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo answers a phone call during the National Governors Association Summer Meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, U.S., July 15, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

Rhode Island tends to favor Democrats at the state and federal level, but Raimondo’s approval levels are below 50 percent, according to public polling.

She campaigned on her fiscal management efforts as state treasurer to win the governorship in 2014, but some of the measures have since stirred a backlash.

“I think the governor is a solid favorite. But in a year where primary turnout overall has been up nationally by 84 percent, you don’t want to take any chances,” said Rob Horowitz, a Rhode Island Democratic political consultant who is not working on this campaign.

There have been no opinion surveys for the nominating contest, but polling suggests November’s general election could be close. Election prediction firms rate it as either “likely” or “leans” Democratic.

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Raimondo had $2.4 million in cash on hand as of Sept. 4, according to state figures. Brown had just $83,700, along with liabilities of $286,000.

FILE PHOTO: Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo (L), Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval (C) and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe attend the National Governors Association summer meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, U.S., July 14, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

Brown has criticized Raimondo’s decision to overhaul the state’s underfunded pension plans when she was treasurer in 2011, cutting pension payments to save billions, which angered some retirees.

He has also been critical of her decision to accept donations from out-of-state donors, including Wall Street executives.

Raimondo has responded to Brown by running ads attacking his positions and accusing him of hiding debt and money laundering during a failed bid for the U.S. Senate – prompting a cease-and-desist letter from Brown’s attorneys, who said the accusations were false.

“She started running very strong attack ads against him, so that suggests the race either is closing or she is worried about a last-minute surge,” said Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institute in Washington.

The Democratic Governors Association in July dropped $1 million into the race in support of Raimondo, who won in 2014 with 41 percent of the vote over two other candidates, including Allan Fung, the mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island, who is running for the Republican nomination again.

The November election will also feature Joseph Trillo, a former Republican state legislator running as an independent.

Rhode Island’s contests Wednesday are the second-to-last before November. New Hampshire voters picked candidates for Congressional and state races, including governor, on Tuesday.

Reporting by David Gaffen in New York; Editing by Peter Cooney

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