The plan to turn Rhode Island red

GOP strategist Ken McKay is quietly plotting a data-driven explosion of the state’s one-party rule
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  August 12, 2011


The Rhode Island Republican Party's reputation for ineptitude is, by any reasonable measure, richly deserved.

Sure, the party held the governor's office for much of the last two decades. But no longer. Indeed, it doesn't claim a single statewide post at the moment.

Its presence in the General Assembly has long been tiny. Its fundraising is anemic. And the GOP's hapless image only compounds the problem — making it difficult to attract the money and solid candidates that could resurrect the brand.

"People don't trust in the ability of the Republican Party to succeed," says former Rhode Island Republican Party chairman Giovanni Cicione, "and that's that."

But listen closely and you'll hear some hope, in conservative circles, for a more professional operation. Hope, even, for a revolution.

Kenneth McKay IV, the charismatic political strategist who ran Donald Carcieri's successful gubernatorial campaigns and later served as chief of staff at the Republican National Committee, has come home to revive Rhode Island's moribund GOP. And he's got a plan.

It's one part truth-telling; McKay, just a few months into his tenure as state party chairman, has developed a reputation for hyper-partisan bomb-throwing that makes even some in the local GOP blanche.

But the other part — the more consequential part — isn't getting headlines; the chairman, with help from a wise-cracking computer geek holed up in the South County woods, is quietly plotting a data-driven explosion of Rhode Island's one-party rule.

And if Republicans can pull it off — if they can turn one of the bluest states in the country red, or at least a deep shade of purple — the impact could be seismic, McKay suggests.

"I think we have the opportunity to do something really creative and shock people," he says, sitting in the party's modest basement headquarters at a Warwick strip mall.

"I think we are, in Rhode Island right now, involved in the future of conservative politics in America."


That sort of grandiose pronouncement is typical for McKay. Indeed, his audacity is part of his appeal.

But it is offset by a blunt appreciation for reality; a self-deprecating, easy charm; an isn't-this-fun appreciation for even the most lopsided of challenges.

We may not, in the end, win a single new seat in the General Assembly next fall, he says with a broad grin, but we're sure as hell going to try.

The chairman, 44, was born in Providence, where his father managed the family business, McKay's Furniture, founded in 1900.

When the store closed, the McKays moved south to help launch a new shop in North Kingstown, which had served as home base for much of the clan since the 1940s when Ken's grandfather Kenneth McKay, Jr. converted the family's fishing cottage into a permanent residence.

Ken's dad soon left McKay's Furniture to take a job as a sales representative for a furniture manufacturer, though. And the family moved around as his sales terrain shifted. Upstate New York. Massachusetts.

The McKays weren't all that political, Ken says. But he counts long conversations with his grandfather and his grandfather's best friend Les Flood, who recently died, as formative.

They talked about running the family business, he says, and how "you act as a man" — opening doors for people, smiling, working hard.

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