This year’s census will likely prompt a political showdown between longtime members of Congress in the nation’s smallest state.
An analysis based on Census Bureau population projections has Rhode Island losing its second congressional seat in 2022, one of 10 states that could lose representation in Congress. The projections show a tight margin for the last few congressional seats, according to an analysis from Election Data Services. The Ocean State stands 14,000 residents shy of the seat, or about 1 percent of its population.
Rhode Island would be the latest state to have at-large representation, which would force a decision for its two current House members: Democrats David Cicilline and Jim Langevin. The last time a state went at-large, in 1992, incumbent Montana Reps. Pat Williams and Ron Marlenee duked it out at the ballot box. Williams, a Democrat, won.
Both Cicilline and Langevin have been coy about their plans come 2022 — there’s an election this year after all — but some in the state said Cicilline may have the edge in a primary. Over the last several years, the former Providence mayor has taken a more prominent role in the House, frequently defending Democratic priorities in national media and becoming chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.
“It would be a competitive race, and it could go either way,” Democratic strategist Rob Horowitz told CQ Roll Call. “But Cicilline would be the favorite. He has far more visibility, fits in better with a far younger, and more liberal, primary electorate.”
Cicilline, who was first elected in 2010, has staked out a base in the more densely populated eastern half of the state. He plays a prominent role in the House majority’s legislation on LGBTQ issues and election security, as well as oversight of the Trump administration.
Langevin took office in 2001 representing the slightly more Republican western portion of the state. He has emerged as a voice on defense issues in the House, and chairs the Armed Services Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee.
Langevin’s position on abortion — he’s stated he’s opposed to it, but has also come out in favor of exceptions for rape and incest and backs contraceptive access — has given him a mixed record among anti-abortion and abortion rights groups. Much of his tenure has been focused on local issues, according to political science professor Wendy Schiller of Brown University.
“You’re going to be taking a very locally known person who has focused on issues like mental health and gun control in Langevin versus Cicilline, who has taken on a lot of national issues as well as local appropriations, trying to bring money back for Rhode Island,” Schiller said.
Schiller pointed out that by 2022, Cicilline could have a more prominent role in House leadership, setting up a sharper contrast with the locally focused Langevin.
“Voters aren’t just going to be thinking, ‘Nationally, we don’t want to lose Cicilline because he is so prominent.’ They are going to be thinking about who has done the most for Rhode Island,” she said.
For their part, Langevin and Cicilline said they won’t worry about 2022 until after getting through 2020.
“It’s too early, I haven’t thought about it yet,” Langevin told CQ Roll Call. “Right now, I’m focused on doing my job and getting reelected in 2020.”
A close margin
Analyses by EDS and others show several states clustered around losing or gaining the 435th seat in Congress with margins of a few thousand residents either way.
Kim Brace, the president of EDS, said it will come down to how well the census is conducted “and that will dictate how the final apportionment happens. If there are undercounts in some places, that may cause things to change.”
That’s driven many states on the bubble for losing seats to invest heavily in census outreach efforts. Rhode Island’s governor last year devoted more than $500,000 to a “complete count” committee to coordinate census efforts.
One of the state’s two Democratic senators, Jack Reed, currently ranking member on Armed Services, said the loss of a seat would push the remaining three Ocean State members to closely coordinate on issues for the state.
“My hope frankly is, because we are very, very close, our first effort is to get everyone counted,” Reed said.
Reed and the state’s junior senator, Sheldon Whitehouse, have helped the state punch above its weight, Schiller said. However, the loss of any congressional seat comes with a corresponding loss in federal funding and votes to secure projects in the House.
“Every representative secures some benefit for their district and in a small state, a grant like $50,000 or $100,000 can make a huge difference,” Schiller said.
Cicilline put it another way to CQ Roll Call.
“My focus really is on getting everyone in Rhode Island counted,” he said. “Mr. Langevin and I will be fine. It’s the impact on Rhode Island that matters.”