Running a successful primary campaign against an incumbent governor is one of the most difficult things to do in politics. Primaries against incumbents are difficult enough but statewide campaigns against a powerful figure like a governor who can use all of the power of their current office is near impossible. However, many thought that if it would happen during this cycle, it would happen to a handful of Republican incumbents who drew the ire of the Trumpier wing of the party – some notable targets this cycle were Mike DeWine of Ohio, Brad Little of Idaho, and Brian Kemp of Georgia.
Despite these notable challengers and Trump endorsing against both Little and Kemp, they all won fairly easily. DeWine won a plurality with 48% of the vote while his closest challenger, former Rep. Jim Renacci, ended with only 28% of the vote. Little managed to defeat his Trump-endorsed Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin by 36 percentage points. Finally, Brian Kemp, who was arguably one of Donald Trump’s biggest targets, easily defeated former Sen. David Perdue by over 50 points. Primarying incumbent governors is not easy.
However, despite all of these closely watched and hotly contested incumbent primaries on the Republican side, the most interesting primary that could actually result in a current governor losing is on the democratic side in the little state of Rhode Island. Incumbent Governor Dan McKee is currently in the fight of his life as he works to fend off three high profile challengers. These challengers are former Secretary of State Matt Brown, current Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, and former CVS executive Helena Foulkes.
One reason that Gov. McKee is currently in such a tough fight is that he was never elected as Governor. McKee was the Lt. Governor when Gina Raimondo resigned in 2021 to be Joe Biden’s Secretary of Commerce. This left him as the successor to the Governor’s office, and he had barely stepped a foot into his new office when challengers began to also throw their hat in the ring. There is precedent on non-elected governors losing their primaries in recent years as well. In late 2017, Donald Trump nominated Kansas Governor Sam Brownback for a federal position. This left his Lt. Governor, Jeff Colyer, as Governor. Colyer was then defeated by Kris Kobach in the primary by 361 votes. Clearly, it is much easier to defeat an incumbent governor when they haven’t even been elected to the position in the first place.
Polling Spells Trouble
Recent polling also spells trouble for McKee. The last two polls that have been released have shown McKee trailing Nellie Gorbea by single-digits with Helena Foulkes closely behind the two of them. The last two polls, one being a Gorbea internal, show a tight race. The Gorbea internal showed her leading with 27%, McKee in second with 22%, and Foulkes and Brown following suit with 14% and 7% respectively. The independent survey done by Suffolk University showed a slightly tighter race with Gorbea at 24%, McKee at 20%, Foulkes at 16%, and Brown at 5%. Not numbers that you would like to see as an incumbent. The previous three Republican incumbents mentioned were never behind in a single poll released to the public.
A History of Close Primaries
McKee is also no stranger to close primary challenges. He had the closest election of his life in 2018 when progressive state representative J. Aaron Regunberg challenged him for the Lt. Governor position. McKee won by a mere 2,466 votes out of over 113,000 cast. McKee was backed by establishment figures in the state while Regunberg was backed by progressives like Bernie Sanders. Regunberg, along with some of his current challengers, have gone after McKee for “dragging the state back to the bad old days of pay-to-play governance.” He is being accused of dishing out government contracts to large interests that have financially backed his campaign at the expense of funding for other programs and services, such as an overdose prevention program. McKee’s approval of school vouchers has also proven to be an easy attack from his more progressive opponents.
This cycle has had very many interesting gubernatorial primaries, but none so far have ended in an incumbent’s defeat. In fact, none of the more closely watched ones that people assumed could be competitive were particularly close. However, due to McKee’s relatively low approval ratings, the fact that he was never elected to the position in the first place, and a few high profile, serious challengers, Rhode Island may be the first, and only, state this cycle to oust their governor in a primary election.