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GOP Primary For Mattiello's Seat Exposes Clash Among Republicans

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The emergence of a second Republican candidate for the Cranston House seat held by Speaker Nicholas Mattiello is exposing a conflict within the state...

The emergence of a second Republican candidate for the Cranston House seat held by Speaker Nicholas Mattiello is exposing a conflict within the state GOP.

While state GOP Chairman Brandon Bell has made clear for months his hopes that Republican National Committeeman Steven Frias would challenge Mattiello, Shawna Lawton went public this week with her own Republican run in District 15.

"You think you would respect what a tight spot that puts Brandon Bell in," House Minority Leader Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield) tells RIPR.

Bell said he would prefer that Frias not face a primary challenger, "but I don't think it's a detraction. It's more of a distraction." He added, "I think Steve Frias is the candidate that has all that it takes to beat Speaker Mattiello, and I think we have the common goal in the Republican Party to beat Speaker Mattiello."

Representative Patricia Morgan (R-West Warwick), a former state party chairwoman, said Lawton reached out to her in March and that the two have continued talking since then. Morgan acknowledges she would like to take on Newberry's role as the GOP leader in the House, but she said that's unrelated to her encouragement of more than 20 candidates for the House and Senate.

"That's not in the equation," she said. "I'm recruiting candidates because this is the only time when people can really change the makeup of the legislature. You know, we can get up there and we can put all kinds of good ideas on the table; we can fight against the toll law, we can say that the community service grant program needs to be reformed, but unless we've got our own team on the field, we are hobbled in our ability to stop bad legislation and get good legislation passed."

Morgan has crafted a profile as a sharp critic of Mattiello's leadership -- a tactic that she calls effective. She said she has not encouraged Republicans or independents to run against incumbent Republicans in fall legislative races, although some Smith Hill sources believe otherwise. The deadline for candidate declarations is 4 p.m. Wednesday.

Newberry has a considerably more low-key approach than Morgan. He won election as minority leader in 2011 after his bomb-throwing predecessor, Robert Watson of East Greenwich, was arrested on drug charges in Connecticut.

Newberry said his tactful approach is deliberate; he said his goal is to keep GOP reps unified on policy issues. Newberry said the role of minority leader is not to be an attack dog.

Lawton, meanwhile, did not respond to a request for comment on what role Morgan played in her becoming a candidate.

Four of 12 House Republicans are not seeking re-election. Bell said he's not concerned that this will detract from efforts to build GOP legislative ranks. He said the quality of Republican candidates is more important than their number.

Republicans hold just 12 of 75 House seats, and six of 38 state Senate seats.

Rep. Patricia Morgan (R-West Warwick) speaking during a past legislative session.
Rep. Patricia Morgan (R-West Warwick) speaking during a past legislative session.