The process to pick a new leader for the Rhode Island Republican Party is over. After an unusually competitive race for chairman of the RI GOP— the conservative faction has triumphed. They hope a restored focus on conservative American values will attract a new generation of voters, while radical Progressive forces have gained General Assembly seats across the state. Chairwoman Suzanne McGee Cienki has been elected to lead the party for the next two years.
Cienki, a mother of five and attorney, was the former head of the East Greenwich Town Council. She brings years of political experience to her new position, and campaigned on learning the lessons from an East Greenwich-wide loss of conservatives to Progressives. Cienki is known for being a consistent and reliable conservative on the issues that count for Rhode Island families. She hopes that she will be able to attract new voters, donors, and candidates to the RIGOP.
“Thank you for the opportunity to become your next chair of the RIGOP,” wrote newly elected Chairwoman Cienki in an email to supporters following the convention. “I look forward to working with you all to increase our membership at the State House. #HeelsOn #GlovesOff #LeadRight #WhatsLeftInYourWallets”
During the first round of voting, Cienki took an early lead. She received 81 votes on the first ballot. In second place during the first round was Mayor Fung backed Rebecca Schiff with 67 votes. Mike Veri, a newcomer with a fresh approach to politics, was in third with 28 votes. Former State Representative Robert Lancia was in last with 15 votes.
Cienki and Veri openly were on good terms on the campaign trail sharing a similar conservative outlook. Lancia also supported a new direction for the Republican Party, and had pledged to support either Cienki or Veri depending on the vote totals.
Within moments of the announcement of the tallies, Veri rose to speak and put his support behind Cienki fulfilling his campaign promise. It was also expected if Lancia had been in third place at that point, he would have put his support behind Cienki.
Schiff then conceded to Cienki.
The new chairwoman was endorsed by Clay Johnson, Chairman of the Gaspee Project and unanimously by the House and Senate Minority Caucus.
In his endorsement of Cienki, Johnson says that the process to transform the Rhode Island GOP will take many years. Currently, the Republicans hold just fourteen seats out of 113 in the General Assembly. The Progressive caucus has made significant inroads in multiple districts driving out the more moderate Democrats. Recently, the Rhode Island House, under the leadership of Speaker Mattiello, voted to pass one of the most extreme pro-abortion bills in the country. They are currently considering further restrictions on Second Amendment rights. Rhode Island is currently ranked 47th on the Jobs & Opportunity Index created by the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity.
In their endorsement of Cienki, Veri, and Ken Mendonça (who dropped out of the race before the convention), the House and Senate Minority Caucus explained their reason for endorsing by saying, “Our belief that these three endorsees agree on the need to refocus the RIGOP on its primary mission: recruiting, training and funding candidates for the General Assembly.”
In order to do that Cienki believes that the Republican Party needs to communicate an effective message on how to restore the fiscal health of Rhode Island, quality of education, and fix the over regulation and taxation of businesses. She argues that the GOP needs to reach out to Rhode Islanders, and let them know there is a better way. Cienki believes that she knows that better way.
Schiff, a professor at the prestigious Naval War College, ran for chair as a moderate Republican. Veri, a young an energetic new contender in Republican politics, is expected to remain deeply involved despite his defeat. Lancia, a former state representative and 100% disabled Navy chaplain, is likely to continue to help the party with minority outreach.
Following the convention, Ed Tarnowski, Chair of the College Republican Federation of Rhode Island said, “A huge congratulations to Sue Cienki on her victory to lead the Rhode Island Republican Party. She’s exactly the kind of fighter we need and I very much look forward to working with her!”
Gina Catalano was re-elected as First Vice Chair of the Rhode Island GOP. David Talan was re-elected as Second Vice Chairman. William Ricci was re-elected Secretary. David Shepard was re-elected Treasurer. Mendonça was elected Chairman of the Chairs.
Critics have raised questions about the ability of the Rhode Island Republican Party to be effective at changing politics in the Ocean State. It remains an open question whether RIGOP moderates will be able to put aside their defeat, and work with the new leadership for party unity. The larger question remains how the RIGOP will begin to implement a strategy going forward to build up its base to counter the growing Progressive movement.