Riding a wave of momentum in the final weeks of the campaign, Gabe Amo, a former White House official, won the special Democratic primary election for an open U.S. House seat in Rhode Island on Tuesday.
His victory makes history, putting him on track to become the first Black person ever to represent Rhode Island in Congress. The outcome is nonetheless a disappointment for the activist left, which had hoped that one of their longtime allies, former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg, would prevail.
Amo, who defeated 10 Democratic rivals, will face Republican nominee Gerry Leonard in a special general election in November.
But since Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District, which encompasses the eastern half of the state, is solidly Democratic, Amo is widely expected to represent the district in Congress.
Amo, born to Ghanaian and Liberian immigrants who raised him in Pawtucket, touted his experience handling intergovernmental coordination for both President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama.
“You’ve got to be adaptable. The skill set needs to meet the moment,” Amo told HuffPost in August, speaking about his White House experience. “That sort of versatility is something that we should have from a member of Congress.”
The off-cycle election was prompted by former Rep. David Cicilline’s resignation in June to run a statewide nonprofit. Cicilline, who had held the seat since 2011, was a leading proponent of antitrust reform on Capitol Hill.
Given the relative rarity of an open congressional post in Rhode Island, where Democratic elected officials abound, Cicilline’s departure sparked a flood of interest from Ocean State politicians hoping to succeed him.
Amo’s most significant competition came from three top contenders: Regunberg, Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, and state Sen. Sandra Cano.
Amo would almost certainly be a mainstream Democrat in line with party leadership. He ran on protecting Social Security and Medicare, fighting for abortion rights and trying to pass stricter gun control.
Most of all, though, he ran on his personal attributes and his experience. And his victory speaks to the enduring power of Obama and Biden, neither of whom endorsed in the race, to shape Democratic primaries.
An Amo TV spot begins with footage of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and former President Donald Trump to establish that “the stakes have never been higher.” It concludes with photos of Amo with Biden and Obama. “Gabe Amo, trusted by President Obama and President Biden ― the one with the experience we need now,” the narrator says.
Amo’s win is something of an upset, as Regunberg led the field in internal polls in recent weeks. Regunberg benefited from the approval of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whose presidential bids Regunberg had supported. He also had the support of the Congressional Progressive Caucus; the Working Families Party, which spent $250,000 in advertising on Regunberg’s behalf; and his own father-in-law, a financial executive who funded an independent direct-mail campaign that elicited criticism from other candidates.
“They won’t go wrong with Gabe.”
– Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.)
Sanders’ blessing was perhaps the most important, as he won the Democratic presidential primary in Rhode Island in 2016. He held a rally for Regunberg on Aug. 27.
Regunberg would not have been a member of the left-wing “Squad.” He cited Cicilline as a model of effective progressive governance, and touted his own work on the passage of state laws ensuring workers paid sick leave, raising the state’s tipped minimum wage, creating a commission to study the use of solitary confinement, enacting online voter registration and encouraging homeowners’ adoption of solar panels.
“It’s really important that our next rep continues to push for those same issues and continues the kind of effective advocacy that I think we’ve all really appreciated from David,” Regunberg told HuffPost in August.
But Amo, riding a surge in fundraising that helped him reach voters on television, insisted that Regunberg was an impractical ideologue. He cited Regunberg’s comments in May that he would have voted against the bill raising the debt ceiling on the grounds that it rewarded Republican “hostage taking.” (In the final debate, Regunberg said he would have voted for the bill if his vote had been needed for its passage.)
And Amo got a last-minute assist from former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who represented the House seat for 16 years before Cicilline. Following a spirited endorsement of Amo, Kennedy aggressively attacked Regunberg in a local television interview, calling him an “extreme” ideologue whose support for a smaller defense budget would jeopardize Rhode Island jobs ― and even Democrats’ hold on the House seat. (Biden carried the seat by 29 percentage points in 2020.)
“The notion that [Regunberg] would come out against the largest economic driver in the 1st District, the defense economy, left me flabbergasted,” Kennedy said. “The notion that you can be a good Democrat and a liberal, and not also support a strong national defense and good jobs here at home, makes no sense.”
The district’s voters “won’t go wrong with Gabe,” Kennedy said.
The results of the primary are also a disappointment for Latinos hoping to see either Matos or Cano make history as the state’s first Latin and first Latina representative in Congress. Matos, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, would have been Congress’ first-ever Afro-Latina member. And Cano, a refugee from Colombia, would have been the first-ever Colombian American woman in Congress.
Matos suffered an especially sharp fall in the House race given her level of name recognition and outside backing. Three super PACs, including groups affiliated with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the pro-choice group EMILY’s List, spent a combined $800,000 in support of Matos’ bid. But she never fully recovered from a July scandal that emerged over the apparent forgery of petition signatures needed to qualify for the ballot.
Cano, who identifies as a progressive, was closest to Regunberg in ideology. Among other positions, she supports the adoption of Medicare for All and a wealth tax.
She had the support of Rhode Island’s teachers unions and many of her colleagues in the legislature, but lacked the funds to match her competitors’ advertising strength.
Nonetheless, the timing of the special primary election may be a silver lining for both Cano and Matos. They will have the chance to resume their jobs as state senator and lieutenant governor, respectively.