From Al The Debate Chicken, to “2A Sanctuary” Municipal Designations, Rhode Island populist-conservative messaging has been most prominent when presented in the form of a gimmick.
While conservative ideology is somewhat prevalent in Rhode Island, including elements of the social and fiscal positions of much of the state’s Democratic leaders, the Rhode Island Republican Party has been vanquished into a second-tier operation, largely due to its inability to deliver a substantive, clear and consistent message to voters.
The party’s inability to harness substantial relationships with moderate and conservative-leaning Democrats and unaffiliated voters is every bit as much about branding as it is platform substance. The consequence, for Republicans is minimal media coverage; for Rhode Islanders, a reduction in debate and opposition in state government.
Since ‘The Bloodless Revolution’ of the 1930’s, Rhode Island has been dominated by the Democratic Party machine, perhaps partially because of Democrats' nimble, ever-shifting makeup. The party has enjoyed a snowball effect, growing larger and more diverse with each rotation.
But in modern times, following Democrats’ trouncing of Republicans in the 2018 statewide elections, and despite the recent installation of new Chairperson Sue Cienki, Republicans in the Ocean State appear to be without a solid, practical framework for growth, serving only as an opposition front on ideological matters.
A series of eyeball grabbing gimmicks - Patricia Morgan’s ‘Al The Debate Chicken’ during the Republican primary; Cranston Mayor Allan Fung’s inability to ‘let loose' during the general election (while also seeming to be unwilling to offer moderate viewpoints for fear of losing the conservative base to Joe Trillo); John Beauregard and the North Smithfield Town Council’s “anti-Nike,” anti-Kaepernick resolution; the press conference (and legal action being taken) by attorney Joe Larisia and former Republican Party chairman Brandon Bell that challenges the constitutionality of the installation of sports betting in the state; and, now, the recent declarations as “second amendment sanctuary towns” by Burrillville, Hopkinton, and soon to be others have created headlines for the local GOP.
But, they must cease immediately as the media and communications face of the Republican Party in Rhode Island, and be replaced with an intelligent, substantial and practical identity if they have any intent on expansion.
Such a shift in messaging would not only improve the dynamics of debate in Rhode Island, it might also allow for the handful of Republicans in positions of power in state government who do have the workings of a clear platform (see: House Minority Leader Blake Filippi), the ability to ascend in state government, planting seeds for Republican inroads in less traditionally Republican districts.
By replacing gimmicks with substance, Rhode Island Republicans might actually begin to turn the corner towards statewide relevancy for the first time since The Bloodless Revolution, rather than fighting on the outskirts of ideology, the media and history.
Bill Bartholomew is a podcast host, musician and media contributor based in Providence, RI
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