Republican John Pagliarini -- the winner of Tuesday's special election in state Senate District 11 -- and Democratic rival Jim Seveney say opposition to Governor Gina Raimondo's truck-toll proposal was a significant factor in the race.
Pagliarini overcame recorded calls urging support for Seveney by Raimondo and US Senator Jack Reed, and additional backing by the state's ruling legislative Democrats, to score an initial 70-vote victory over Seveney. After about 200 mail ballots were counted Wednesday evening by the state Board of Elections, his margin of victory grew to a 120-vote lead over Seveney.
According to the secretary of state's office, Pagliarini received 1,327 votes, compared with 1,207 for Seveney.
A State House protest organized Tuesday by a coalition opposing the governor's truck-toll plan attracted a modest turnout of about 100 people. Yet despite the absence of any preliminary toll gantries in District 11, Seveney and Pagliarini point to the toll issue as a big factor in their race.
"People would just point-blank ask you, 'Where do you stand on tolls?'," Pagliarini tells RIPR. He said he responded with "two words: no tolls."
Seveney, whose late father served three terms in state Senate, had a less fixed position on the toll issue. He didn't express specific support for truck tolls, but said he was keeping an open mind, in part due to the need to fix Rhode Island's poorly rated bridges.
Tolls, Seveney said, were the top issue in his race with Pagliarini. "I knew going in that tolls is a hot-button for the East Bay area, so it's difficult to have any kind of nuanced position," Seveney said. "But I'm concerned about tolls and what they do, and I'm more concerned about public safety issues if we continue to let our infrastructure deteriorate."
A legislative move to put tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge sparked a storm of protest, and the tolls were ultimately eliminated in 2014.
Seveney expressed frustration that the more recent truck-toll debate "has been surrounded by sound-bite solutions that really don't have any factual information behind them yet." In a reference to the Rhode Island Trucking Association, which has offered an alternative to Raimondo's plan, he added, "I hope the truckers can come up with facts and data that support their position that raising the diesel tax and raising some registration fees and whatnot will carry the day. But until there's a rational analysis that supports that ... I don't know. The one fact I do know is that I want our roads and bridges to be safe to travel on, and no one can say that today."
With Pagliarini's victory, he'll be one of five GOP senators in the 38-member Senate. The vacancy was created when former Senator Christopher Ottiano (R-Portsmouth) resigned last October to take a new job. District 11 includes parts of Bristol, Tiverton and Portsmouth.
Ottiano, a moderate Republican, backed Seveney, who also won the endorsement of the Newport Daily News.
Pagliarini's initial victory also comes inspite of how he lives in Tiverton -- which has fewer voters in the district than Seveney's home of Portsmouth.
Changes in the Senate could present a challenge to the chamber's longstanding GOP leader, Dennis Algiere of Westerly.
Both Seveney and Pagliarini say they ran aggressive get-out-the-vote efforts ahead of the election on what proved to be an unusually cold day.
Pagliarini said he beat Democrats at their own game. "I believe the victory was just a victory for Republican ideals," which he said include gun owners' rights and opposition to abortion rights.
Seveney said Senate leaders and legislative Democrats energetically backed his campaign. "They were right there, anything they could do to get the word out," he said.
The state GOP pointed to what it said was the potency of the toll issue in hailing Pagliarini's win. Yet as Seveney noted, Republicans could face tougher sledding next year in legislative races when the presidential race will boost Democratic turnout.
This post has been updated.