Quick to blame Democrats, the local GOP can’t seem to find candidates or a long-term plan of its own
As a leading critic of the status quo at the General Assembly, Providence Journal op-ed columnist Edward Achorn has made repeated reference to the apparent “learned helplessness” of Rhode Islanders. In a 2005 piece, he defined this as “a depressive state brought on by repeated blows to the psyche. When people (or, in laboratory experiments, animals) start believing that nothing they do matters, they stop even trying to have their way.”
Yet when Achorn used a November 6 column to ask whether Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s improbable rise as a Republican in a Democrat-dominated state offers a lesson for Rhode Island, the columnist succumbed in part to his own diagnosis.
“It is notoriously difficult, of course, to change any state’s political culture,” he wrote, offering a sense of defeat about the local prospects for reform. “Old habits and voting patterns are almost impossible to break. Special interests amass power and send out tentacles to control every nook and cranny of the political process.”
Granted, the advent of a competitive GOP presence in the General Assembly is unlikely to happen overnight. Yet Rhode Island Republicans, who — like their counterparts elsewhere — tout their enthusiastic belief in personal responsibility, often remain their own worst enemy when it comes to establishing a greater profile in the legislature.
We have to go back almost 25 years — to 1983 — for the last instance of significant GOP gains on Smith Hill. During a special election that year, voters, infuriated by a badly botched Senate redistricting plan that caused $1.5 million in taxpayer costs, tripled the number of Republican senators, from seven to 21.
In the time since, Republicans have failed at the most basic tasks of political organizing. As Brown University political science professor Darrell West recently noted on WJAR-TV’s 10 News Conference, “You can’t beat somebody with nobody,” and the Rhode Island GOP has failed to run candidates in a large percentage of legislative races in recent years.
After making a more aggressive push that yielded modest gains in 2004, the party took the proverbial two steps back when Governor Donald L. Carcieri, who barely gained reelection last year, focused more narrowly on his own race. To make things worse, in a big Democratic election season, Republicans majorities were undone on town councils in Foster, North Kingstown, Richmond, and Narragansett, and the councils in Foster and Warwick went entirely Democratic.
While incumbents certainly enjoy advantages, the Rhode Island GOP has played a leading role in its own marginalization. “The party does almost nothing to support its candidates,” West says. “They provide very little in the way of financial support. They’re so disorganized there isn’t even a coherent platform around which they can rally.”
Yet instead of recognizing the failure of Republicans to run a competitive slate of legislative candidates in successive election cycles, many party supporters prefer, essentially, to whine about the ruling Democrats on Smith Hill.
: News Features
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