How Lt. Gov. Roberts dispatched Bob HealeyNovember 8th, 2010 at 1:06 pm by Ted Nesi under General Talk
The whispers about Roberts started last spring, when it emerged that she would face a primary challenge from Jeremy Kapstein, a wealthy Red Sox executive and Tiverton native whose father was a state lawmaker. (Roberts had already bowed out of the Democratic gubernatorial race the previous summer.) Pundits saw the makings of a tough race, and Frank Caprio wouldn’t even endorse Roberts.
But Kapstein’s campaign never took off – he raised little money and put minimal effort into the contest – and Roberts walloped him in the Sept. 14 primary, winning 64% of the vote to his 36%.
Then Roberts’ Republican opponent, Heidi Rogers, abruptly dropped out just days after winning the party’s nomination. The Republicans threw their support behind perennial candidate Bob Healey Jr., whose campaign platform called for eliminating the lieutenant governor’s office altogether.
As the election drew closer, plenty of people (myself included) thought Roberts was in trouble. Healey’s anti-establishment message offered an opportunity for a grumpy electorate to stick it to an incumbent, and our WPRI 12 poll just before the vote showed him within seven points of Roberts.
Those predictions were dead wrong. Roberts defeated Healey by a 16-point margin last Tuesday, taking 55% of the vote to his 39%.
In fact, Roberts’ share of the vote rose slightly compared with her first victory in 2006, when she won 53% against Republican Reginald Centracchio and Healey. The total number of votes Roberts received last week – 175,396 – was second only to Democratic treasurer-elect Gina Raimondo, who got 201,335.
Roberts’ campaign manager, Dan Meuse, told me her staff knew she would face a real challenge when Republican Rogers dropped out of the race. “Internal polling showed a very tight race, and that was in late September,” Meuse said in an e-mail. “At that point we huddled our team and hashed out what the message strategy should be – and it turned out to be an effective message.”
Their message was three-pronged: Healey would be unacceptable as a potential governor; Roberts’ work on health insurance has saved Rhode Islanders money; and the lieutenant governor is someone who understands times are tough.
If anything, the tight polls and gloomy predictions from pundits turned out to be an asset to the Roberts campaign, Meuse said:
The campaign was super busy – and unlike a congressional or gubernatorial race, getting volunteers for a down-ballot race is tougher. Prior to the public polls, convincing folks that we needed help in the race was a challenge. But in the last couple of weeks (which is when the undecideds really start to pay attention) we got a bunch of help. We had heavy phone banks for the last two weeks. We activated the groups that endorsed Elizabeth. We really pushed every vote out we could, and I feel that’s what pushed the outcome over the projections (including my own).
That’s not to say Roberts and her team had no missteps. The fact that so many Rhode Islanders were willing to at least considering voting for a guy who wanted to get rid of her office doesn’t say much for its reputation. Even her allies seemed to have trouble making a compelling case for the office’s continued existence.
But at the end of the day, Roberts won – and with Caprio’s loss, she’ll still be the highest-ranking Democrat in the state come January. She has the opportunity to build a better relationship with incoming Gov. Lincoln Chafee than she had with outgoing Gov. Donald Carcieri – perhaps he’ll task her with overseeing the implementation of health reform here.
Eyewitness News political analyst Joe Fleming has already anointed Roberts the front-runner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2014, though if Chafee’s first term goes well it may be tough for anyone to challenge him from the left. And it’s Raimondo who has the buzz as the rising star among Rhode Island Democrats.
As a postscript, Meuse’s work managing Roberts’ campaign is quite impressive when you consider that his wife, Kristen, gave birth to the couple’s second child on Aug. 21 – three and a half weeks before the primary.
“I was working 12 to 14 hours a day, and then not sleeping at night,” Meuse recalled. “I can say that it would not be a recommended family planning strategy for campaign workers.” With the election behind him, Meuse is now taking some well-deserved family time to get to know newborn Jack.
(image credit: Roberts campaign, via Flickr)