By PAUL J. SPETRINI
NORTH KINGSTOWN— Sharon Gamba stood in a small crowd of supporters at Sonoma Pub in North Kingstown Tuesday night with a smile on her face.
In a room full of Republicans who somberly watched as a number of close General Assembly races went Democratic—and a number of incumbents fell short in their re-election bids—the political newcomer who battled Representative Larry Ehrhardt in a tightly-contested District 32 Republican primary two months ago that was ultimately decided by a close recount, couldn’t hide her pleasure at seeing her one-time opponent fall in his quest for a fifth term.
“I’m not surprised at all,”
Gamba said following Ehrhardt’s 600-vote loss to Democratic challenger Robert Craven Tuesday night. “He split the party in half. People understood that he recruited me [before running against me], he lied about it and they were upset. They were upset and, you know what? I wasn’t part of that but I did not vote for either one of them. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t vote for Larry after that.”
In a surprising result, the four-term incumbent Representative fell 3,778-3,151 to his opponent on a night when NK and Exeter voters chose Democratic candidates in four of the six General Assembly races in the two towns.
All told, the only Republican candidates to win Tuesday night, pending a dramatic change in the final results as the state’s Board of Elections had yet to count an estimated 1,100 mail-in ballots as of Wednesday afternoon, were District 31 Representative Doreen Costa, who survived a much-closer-than-expected contest against Steve Campo 3,608-3,202, and District 35 Senator Dawson Hodgson, who defeated challenger Win Hames 7,272-5,181.
“It’s an extremely tough night,” Costa said. “It’s hard for me to celebrate right now when all my friends are pretty much losing. I mean, I’m just getting messages from my friends that say ‘I lost, I lost I lost, I lost.’ I can celebrate my victory but to me it’s about a team and, right now, I feel so bad for everybody.”
Hodgson, on the other hand, was quick to thank those who voted for him—in all he won with a total of 58.2 percent of the vote, but even quicker to turn his focus on the future.
“I am very pleased with the election results in my district,” he said. “I am honored and humbled by the confidence of my constituents. I take that as an endorsement of the approach that I’ve had the past two years which is quite different than the whole legislator but the thing about all of these election results is no matter who won, we had double-digit unemployment yesterday and we have double-digit unemployment this morning so, the fact that one party of another did well in the election didn’t put anybody back to work so that’s my particular focus and I’m ready to hit the ground running during the next session.”
The biggest surprise of the night, by far, was Ehrhardt’s defeat.
The Republican Representative had previously never lost an election and seemed like a lock following a 22-vote victory over Gamba.
Ultimately, both he and Gamba agree that the primary likely made Ehrhardt’s road to victory that much more difficult.
“Yes, I think it definitely did,” Ehrhardt said. “Both in terms of physical energy and in time because that was a negative campaign and I spent a lot of time defending myself against various allegations and I don’t think that that carried over in the general election but it certainly didn’t help.”
Ehrhardt refused to agree with his former opponent, however, that the primary was the direct reason he lost, choosing instead to point to the night’s overall Democratic win as a more likely reason.
“Mrs Gamba is a political neophyte and I think her understanding of those things leaves a lot to be desired,” he said. “I just don’t know what to say. I thought I ran a good campaign, did everything you’re supposed to in terms of advertising and letters and I was out meeting the people. it must just be a tribute to the power of the embedded Democratic majority in this state.”
Craven had another potential reason for his victory: the tendency of voters in the district to want new representation.
“I thought it was going to be a close race but I’m humbled and honored and anxious to get to work,” he said. “He’s been in eight years and I don’t think it’s unusual at a tumultuous time that a seasoned veteran politician gets defeated. People asked me when I knocked on the door ‘are you in?’ and when I said ‘No, I’m not in’, they said ‘Well, I’ll vote for you.’”
It was a wave of momentum Costa felt, too.
Saying she had “butterflies” while watching the results trickle in, and comparing it to the much-easier election night she faced in 2010 when she shocked then long-term incumbent Ken Carter, Costa felt she could win the race against Campo as long as she took three or four of the five precincts in North Kingstown.
She won all but Precinct 2303 at SMH Quidnesset Elementary School.
“It’s a big sigh of relief,” she said.
In the final General Assembly race in North Kingstown, Democratic incumbent Jim Sheehan held off a tough challenge from Republican Mariacristina McKendall, winning 7,994-5,223 before mail-in ballot votes were tallied.
“I’m very gratified,” Sheehan said Tuesday night, “It seems that hard work does pay off. I really am proud of my record and I think people have recognized the hard work that I put into it but I don’t take it for granted and I will continue to work very hard to continue to earn their support.”
McKendall said she wasn’t surprised at the results of her race but “could not believe” how the night went overall for Republicans.
“I don’t believe the results,” she said. “I believe that it’s possible that I lost but I don’t believe the results across the state. The state’s in a huge mess and it’s been an entirely Democratic-run General Assembly and the people of this state got rid of the few Republicans that were in the General Assembly even though the Democrats had a huge majority. Something doesn’t sit right with me.”
Perhaps the most surprising Republican defeat of the night, aside from Ehrhardt’s loss in District 32, was incumbent Frank Maher’s loss to Democrat challenger Catherine Cool Rumsey.
The District 34 Senator failed to win re-election after losing by over 1,300 votes and only tallying 44.5 percent of the vote. Locally, Maher lost in Exeter by a much-closer margin, falling 1,543-1,467, but it was enough to call the race as the 130 mail-in ballots left to be counted wouldn’t change much.
Maher was the only General Assembly member from Exeter to lose however as Costa won the town 469-402 and incumbent Democrat Larry Valencia rebounded from a tough 1,106-969 loss in Exeter to win District 39 overall by a margin of 3,194-2,777.
“I think it was obviously a good day to be a Democrat,” Valencia said. “There was a tremendous interest in this race from the presidential race on down and even in a somewhat conservative district like I am—I describe myself as a progressive Democrat—I’m pretty happy getting the vote total that I got and I hope to build on it.”
For more on the General Assembly races, and a look ahead at what the individual candidates hope to accomplish next term, pick up a copy of next week’s Standard-Times.