A dozen Democrats duel in Rhode Island special election

Democrats will pick from a crowded field of candidates in a Rhode Island primary Tuesday that is almost certain to determine who will fill a vacant seat in Congress.

Then-Rep. David Cicilline resigned earlier this year to take a job running Rhode Island’s largest philanthropy, creating a rare high-profile opening in a tiny and largely Democratic state.

As many as 12 Democrats are on the ballot, with several claiming support from major national groups. Two candidates are on the Republican ballot, but a Republican has not won the Providence-based 1st Congressional District in decades.

“Rhode Island is smaller than probably most counties in the United States, and yet they have an outsized number of elected officials,” said Rich Luchette, a former adviser to Cicilline, who has not endorsed a successor. “All of them are ambitious, all of them look in the mirror and see a future member of Congress.”

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., at the Capitol on Dec. 8, 2022. (Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images file)

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., at the Capitol on Dec. 8, 2022. (Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images file)

The state has a relatively large Legislature and numerous small municipalities, most of which are run by Democrats, resulting in a surfeit of contenders.

The front-runner had been seen as Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, but a scandal involving forged signatures gathered on her behalf to get on the ballot may have mortally wounded her prospects.

She has denied wrongdoing and blamed a rogue vendor for collecting the phony signatures, but her slow response to the controversy, the state attorney general’s ongoing investigation and a lack of other major campaign developments this summer meant she suffered months of bad headlines.

The other two leading candidates are seen as former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg — who has tried to lock down the progressive lane with endorsements from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. — and former White House official Gabe Amo, who has the backing of Ron Klain, President Joe Biden’s former chief of staff, and former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I.

While the race bears some resemblance to the progressive-versus-establishment fights that played out in other recent congressional primaries, the battle lines are much less clear.

Labor unions and national advocacy organizations have divided their support among numerous candidates, while Regunberg has mostly consolidated the left.

For instance, the Congressional Black Caucus is backing Amo, while the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the women’s group Emily’s List, along with some major labor unions and the New Dems, are backing Matos.

“The surprising thing to me is that so many national groups have spent so much money on a seat that is basically going to elect Hakeem Jeffries the next leader,” Luchette said, referring to the New York congressman who succeeded Nancy Pelosi as House Democratic leader.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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