Bernie Sanders is the latest big-name Democrat to get involved in a crowded primary in a Rhode Island special congressional election that could serve as an early bellwether of sentiment inside the party’s base in the absence of a real presidential primary.
The winner of the Sept. 5 primary in the deep-blue district centered on Providence is almost certain to be victorious in the following month's general election, which was triggered when Rep. David Cicilline stepped down to run the state’s largest nonprofit group.
With 12 Democrats on the ballot and the party’s establishment divided among several candidates, former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg is trying to consolidate progressives with the help of validators like Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont.
“I’m endorsing Aaron Regunberg for Congress because he understands the vital need to stand up against large corporations who have too much control over political and economic systems,” Sanders said in his endorsement, first reported by NBC News. "Aaron's candidacy is about making our government work for everyday people, rather than corporations and billionaires, and he deserves your vote."
Regunberg has also received the endorsements of the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC, the Rhode Island Working Families Party, the progressive organization Our Revolution and progressive lawmakers like Reps. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and Ro Khanna, D-Calif. — though some local left-wing groups say he’s not progressive enough.
“Bernie Sanders is an American hero,” said Regunberg, 33, who was first elected to office in his early 20s. “He changed the game and made it possible for young elected officials like me to believe that big change was possible.”
It’s unclear whether, in its final six weeks, the race will become a new flashpoint in the intraparty struggle that played out last year when progressive and establishment forces waged an ugly multimillion-dollar grudge match across the country, mostly in primaries for safe Democratic congressional seats.
While those primaries have little impact on the partisan tilt of the House, both sides said the contests were critical in shaping the future of the Democratic Party on Capitol Hill and beyond.
TV ads have just started hitting the airwaves in Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District as the relatively unknown candidates seek to differentiate themselves in what is expected to be a low-turnout election — Rhode Island’s first special congressional election in decades.
The front-runner is seen as Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, the state’s first Afro-Latina lieutenant governor, who has the backing of several major labor unions and Latino and African American groups, as well as Emily’s List, the powerful Washington-based women’s group.
But Matos’ campaign hit a snag this month after the discovery of apparently fraudulent signatures submitted on her behalf to qualify for the ballot, which has sparked a criminal investigation. Matos, who has denied any wrongdoing, blamed a rogue contractor for the error.
“Any insinuation that our campaign in any way encouraged this is simply false and contradictory to the facts,” her campaign manager said in a statement to local media.
A spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Other candidates seen as top contenders include Gabe Amo, a former Biden White House official who has the backing of former White House chief of staff Ron Klain and the Congressional Black Caucus PAC; Donald Carlson, a self-funder who has some national LGBTQ support; and state Sen. Sandra Cano, who has the support of some major unions and local officials, including her fiancé, the state treasurer.