Insurgent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders won a resounding victory over front-runner Hillary Clinton in Rhode Island’s Democratic presidential primary today. On the Republican side, Donald Trump crushed challengers Ted Cruz and John Kasich.
On a rainy and blustery New England day, voters surged to polls in both primaries to deliver a strong message to the establishment of both major parties, saying emphatically that they aren’t pleased with the status quo.
This was particularly the case on the Democratic side, where voters delivered a stinging rebuke to Clinton, who defeated Barack Obama in the 2008 RI presidential primary by 18 percentage points.
In a new release, Sanders said he was proud of the Rhode Island victory, noting that it was the lone state in the Acela primary "where independents had a say in the outcome.''
"Democrats should recognize that the ticket with the best chance of winning this November must attract support from independents as well as Democrats. I am proud of my campaign's record in that regard,'' said the Vermont senator.
Clinton had the backing of every major Democratic politician in the state, including U.S. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, U.S. Reps David Cicilline and Jim Langevin, Gov. Gina Raimondo, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and Democratic State Chairman Joseph McNamara.
Clinton ran a vigorous campaign in the state, complete with two visits from husband Bill Clinton, her own rally in Central Falls and a litany of surrogates, including former Congressman Barney Frank from nearby southeastern Massachusetts and abortion rights crusader Cecile Richards.
But while the elected Democrats basked in the attention at rallies and the television coverage, it doesn’t appear they did much more than go through the motions for their candidate. They barely turned in as many mail ballots as the Sanders campaign, which was fueled by the enthusiasm of thousands of volunteers and a strong campaign. The Sanders campaign outspent Clinton on television and had a very strong social media and get out the vote effort.
Sanders drew 7,000 cheering supporters to Roger Williams Park on Sunday in the largest campaign rally the state has seen since 1996, when Bill Clinton attracted a slightly larger crowd at a downtown Providence event as a sitting president.
As they say in Sanders world, his victory was a Yuuuuge slap at the Democratic establishment in a state with the worst economy in New England and where polls show voters very upset with the direction of state government. Raimondo, who campaigned with Clinton, didn’t seem to help at all, perhaps because the governor’s job approval numbers are so weak.
The leaders of both parties will have some soul-searching to do. Rhode Island is a very blue state that has not gone Republican in a presidential election since the 1984 Ronald Reagan landslide. The challenge for Republican leaders will be to protect their down-ballot candidates from a Trump landslide loss at the top of the ticket.
Activist Democrats will obviously spin the Sanders win as a slap at many of the conservative lawmakers on Smith Hill that progressives deride as DINOS, Democrats in name only. Some of the issues are obvious; the two top General Assembly Democrats, House Speaker Nick Mattiello of Cranston and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed of Newport are seriously out of touch with the national party and local liberals on abortion rights. Both oppose abortion.
And the results could generate more support for such progressive Democratic themes as legalizing pot and raising the minimum wage, a plan that has provoked pushback from the small business community and the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce.
Of course, for the Sanders insurgency to have any effect, his supporters must continue their political involvement. A big challenge for the Democratic Party has been motivating voters in the midterm electoral cycles, where anemic voter turnout has hurt the party deeply.