'Thank you Rhode Island': McKee declares victory in the race for governor

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PROVIDENCE − Gov. Dan McKee was on his way to a decisive victory on Tuesday night after beating back an aggressive challenge from Rhode Island newcomer Ashley Kalus in his battle to keep the office he inherited a year ago.

With 99% of 414 polling places reporting, Democrat McKee had 57.9% of the vote, and Republican Kalus 38.9%. The three independents got 3% between them.

"Thank you Rhode Island," shouted an elated McKee, when he arrived at the Democrats' celebration at the Graduate hotel to give his victory speech.

"We're going to bring people together in the state of Rhode Island like we've never seen before, and we're going to achieve levels that we only have dreamed of in the past."

And, "we're just getting started," he said, promising: "We are going to make sure that every student in the state of Rhode Island reaches their potential, and by 2030, we will meet or exceed Massachusetts' levels in education."

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McKee, who was pummeled by Kalus repeatedly for his tie-breaking vote for public financing for the proposed Pawtucket soccer stadium, also repeated his oft-heard campaign line: "And we are not turning our back on the city of Pawtucket. I can tell you that right now."

McKee said he received two calls before he took center-stage: one from Kalus - and another from President Joseph Biden - congratulating him.

In her own turn, Kalus told supporters at a Republican gathering in Warwick: "When we started this campaign nine months ago, we did it to advocate for a better Rhode Island, a Rhode Island that people can be proud of."

"While we may not have won tonight, we should be incredibly proud of what we've accomplished. We highlighted problems that are plaguing our state. We highlighted that people are struggling so their needs can hopefully be met, and we brought front and center the most important issues of our time."

"I wish Gov. McKee the best of luck in his next four years. I am rooting for him and you should too."

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As expected, McKee began with a healthy lead in the four communities where the majority of registered voters are Democrats − Pawtucket, North Providence, Central Falls and Providence, crushed her in the vote-rich capital city, and kept building from there.

After U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said the race has been called for McKee, the small crowd in the ballroom at the Graduate in Providence started chanting "Four more years."

Early in the night, all eyes were on the western half of the state - and Warwick, in particular - where a nationally watched race for Rhode Island's Second Congressional District seat was drawing voters. By 9 p.m., McKee was close to locking in a solid lead over Kalus in Warwick as well.

Kalus, who arrived in Rhode Island last year - and largely self-financed her own campaign - appeared to be running strongest in the most Donald Trump-friendly towns in Rhode Island in the 2020 presidential election, the GOP belt that includes Burrillville, Coventry, Exeter, Foster, Glocester, Hopkinton, Johnston, North Smithfield, Scituate, Smithfield and West Greenwich.

She captured the once Democratic town of Johnston, where she led McKee 53.9% to 43.4%.

The two sides ran an insider versus outsider race.

Gov. Dan McKee chats with Ryan Queenan outside a polling station in East Providence.
Gov. Dan McKee chats with Ryan Queenan outside a polling station in East Providence.

On one side: the 71-year-old McKee, a lifelong Rhode Islander who has been in public life since he was first elected to the Town Council in his hometown of Cumberland three decades ago on his way to becoming Cumberland mayor and then lieutenant governor. He ascended to governor in March 2021 when Gov. Gina Raimondo quit mid-term and mid-pandemic to become U.S. commerce secretary, marking the first time since 1950 that a Rhode Island governor quit and the lieutenant governor took over.

On the other side: the 40-year-old Kalus, a recent arrival to the state who came here in 2021 to manage a COVID testing and vaccination contract that ended under disputed circumstances; registered to vote in January; announced for governor in March and poured $4.7 million of her family's money into an aggressive campaign to unseat McKee.

He accused her of running for governor as revenge for losing the contract. She insisted the time she and her husband spent in beautiful Rhode Island when he was in medical school made her want to move back permanently to tackle the "corruption, insider deals, abuse of power and incompetence."

Gov. Dan McKee greets voters at an East Providence polling station on Tuesday.
Gov. Dan McKee greets voters at an East Providence polling station on Tuesday.

Her example: McKee's tie-breaking vote for up to $60 million in public money for the proposed Pawtucket soccer stadium, which she called "a dirty backroom deal." He called it a catalyst for economic development in a city hungry for growth and still smarting over the loss of the Pawtucket Red Sox.

But a deeper look at Kalus' history found that she and her husband benefited as recently as 2021 from a "homestead exemption" reserved for Illinois residents that reduced her property taxes there while she was registered to vote in Florida. She did not terminate her Florida voter registration until the day after she declared for governor in Rhode Island in March.

And she left behind a trail of legal fights in both Florida and Illinois, including a lawsuit filed against her by a former business partner with whom she had worked in former Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration in Illinois. The breach of contract lawsuit accuses Kalus and her husband, Dr. Jeffrey Weinzweig, of cheating the chief operating officer out of a salary – and a promised share of Adhereon, a company that marketed scar healing products and breast-implant devices – and diverting assets to Kalus' campaign.

Last week, months of profanity-laced texts that Kalus sent a Chicago contractor with whom she was having a billing dispute surfaced. At one point, she ridicules him for wearing "Costco pants your mom picked out for you," and says: "And remember your social status here Mike."

Republicans hoped voters would see the race as a referendum on McKee and his alleged missteps, regardless of anything they learned about newcomer Kalus' history.

Their list of grievances was long: from the soccer stadium, to his award of an education consulting contract that sparked an unresolved state and federal inquiry, to the $3,000 "retention bonuses" he gave unionized state employees to the eye-popping raises he proposed and then scaled back for the members of his Cabinet.

The voluble Kalus also relied on the same national GOP script that her fellow Republican, Allan Fung, relied on as a candidate for Rhode Island's 2nd Congressional District seat: that inflation is driving up food, gas and other energy prices, and the Democrats in power – McKee and President Joe Biden – are to blame.

And if Twitter is any indication, Rhode Island Republicans, who make up little more than 15% of the electorate, and Republican-leaning independents were giddy at the prospect of electing the first Republican as governor since Donald Carcieri left office 12 years ago with the 38 Studios debacle in his wake.

McKee survived a tough Democratic primary competition, besting two solid challengers – R.I's term-limited Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and Helena Foulkes, a former top executive at the Rhode Island-based CVS – and two others. When it was over, Democrats and their traditional backers, including the state's labor unions coalesced around McKee.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Ashley Kalus boards her campaign bus after a stop at the Johnston High School polling station.
Republican gubernatorial nominee Ashley Kalus boards her campaign bus after a stop at the Johnston High School polling station.

He went on what he called a Rhode Island momentum tour, mentioning at nearly every stop that Rhode Island went from "worst to first" in COVID-19 vaccinations, had one of the first economies to emerge from the COVID abyss and one of its lowest unemployment rates on record, even if it has inched up a bit in recent months.

He and his fellow Democrats also ran on the overarching issues that help voters distinguish between the Republicans and Democrats on the ballot, including what they call "sensible gun-safety laws [and] a woman’s right to choose."

McKee had a double-digit lead over Kalus in the last public polls early last month. But both sides spent a ton of money in the weeks that followed, did battle in debates and found themselves enmeshed in controversies. And both hop-scotched the state on Tuesday, making last minute appeals for votes.

The only real surprise was the size of McKee's double-digit margin of victory, according to the unofficial Board of Elections results.

In the final days, the Democratic Governors Association committed at least $260,000 to a final ad buy for McKee to shore up his support, as Kalus funneled another $1 million of her own money into her campaign.

There were also three less-known independent candidates on the gubernatorial ballot: Zachary Hurwitz, Paul Rianna and Elijah Gizzarelli.

With reports from Paul Parker and Wheeler Cowperthwaite

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: RI Election results: Gov. McKee declares victory, Ashley Kalus concedes