CRANSTON, R.I. — House Democrats are painting their midterm opponents as election-denying, abortion-banning acolytes of Donald Trump. Allan Fung says his rejection of that label is why he could become this blue state's first elected congressional Republican in decades.
“I’ve always been that middle-of-the-road, common sense-type person. That’s why I think they’re nervous,” Fung said of Democrats. “They’re talking like, ‘Oh, there’s this radical Republican.' That’s not me.”
Once the pragmatic mayor of Rhode Island’s second-largest city, Fung is now giving the GOP its first competitive Ocean State race in years with a brand of New England centrism that many in his party believed was already extinct. A Fung win in a district that Joe Biden carried by 13 points in 2020 would be the kind of electoral earthquake that could force national Democrats to reckon with glaring weaknesses that may go beyond a toxic midterm cycle.
And he's not alone: Fung is among a small cadre of centrists looking to revive the mantle of New England Republican in the House. They're largely running away from Trump and social conservatism, hitting their Democratic opponents on record-high prices and betting that inflation worries over everything from home heating oil to fertilizer will resonate in the region's mix of tiny blue-collar cities, wealthy suburbs and family farms.
In Connecticut there's George Logan, a former state senator who once pulled off an upset against a 24-year Democratic incumbent. Further down I-95, former naval officer Mike France is taking on Democratic incumbent Rep. Joe Courtney. Up north, a familiar face is seeking a comeback: Former Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Maine, who'd been the House GOP's lone New Englander until he lost his reelection bid in 2018.
Fung, who playfully posed with locals dressed as Star Wars stormtroopers outside a police-department-sponsored festival, has personally disavowed another Trump presidential run. He blames climate change for the state’s recent floods. He wouldn’t support a national ban on abortion or LGBT rights, but would have backed Congress’ bipartisan gun safety deal this summer.
“Whether it’s abortion, guns, economy, everything, I don’t fit their narrative,” said Fung, who is looking to succeed retiring Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.). He led all potential Democratic rivals by double digits in a June poll from Suffolk University.
Instead, the former mayor's platform is largely a single-issue focus on inflation. And he’s not the only one using that playbook, betting that an unpopular Biden White House has pissed off enough independents — who make up the majority of New England’s voter rolls — and even Democrats to put the GOP within striking distance here.
"I’ve heard moderate Democrats say numerous times that the Democratic party has left them," said Logan, a top GOP recruit who'd also be one of the region's first Afro-Latino representatives. "That’s where a moderate Republican is providing an alternative."
This year, many Republicans say their success in these blue districts will be a bellwether for the national GOP as it tries to surf a potential red wave. New England could also preview the way House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy might govern as speaker if his party wrests back control of the chamber — heavy on the economy, less so on divisive social issues.
McCarthy and his team are paying close attention to these races: He just completed a weekend New England swing, fundraising with both Logan and Fung.
In Maine, independents have left Biden “in droves,” Poliquin observed, adding that voters are looking for “common-sense Republicans” this fall. He rattled off the price hikes he’s seen: Home heating oil has tripled, gas has doubled, milk is up about 20 percent. Even beer, he said, is up 25 percent.
“Everyone’s feeling it,” said Poliquin, who described himself as “center-right” but willing to work with Biden for the next two years.
But since Trump left office, moderates from all over the map are seeing their ranks shrink. The House GOP has shown it's often more interested in playing hardball than working across the aisle. That’s meant that Republicans who do buck the party — whether by voting against infrastructure money or opposing efforts to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol attack — are left without a place.
Fung said he’s not rattled by the base backlash his fellow centrists have received for backing bipartisan bills: “You have to stick by your decisions. I’m not afraid to make a decision and do what’s right for everyone.”
Notably, even as he vowed to work with Democrats, Fung also said that if he wins in November, he'd likely vote to put McCarthy in charge of the House. (Logan said he supports the GOP's current leadership slate but isn't committing to anyone for speaker yet.)
Among those Democrats that Fung would have to partner with is Rhode Island's other House member, Rep. David Cicilline, who like much of his party is publicly dismissive of Fung’s chances to flip the seat. Despite Fung's nice-guy energy, Democrats point out he would still support a GOP leadership team veering hard to the right. (The current Democratic primary frontrunner, Seth Magaziner, likes to remind voters of this by tweeting a photo of Fung in a Trump-branded winter hat.)
“Probably the biggest thing going against” Fung, said Democratic state senator Mark McKenney, is that most Rhode Island voters here don’t want to hand over House control to the Republicans.
Other Ocean State Democrats, though, are blunter about Fung's prospects.
“He’s a candidate that everybody should take seriously,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who was Fung’s boss decades ago while serving as the state’s attorney general.
Early polls here have hinted at Fung’s high popularity after 12 years as mayor, plus several more on the city council. Even Republicans acknowledge the race will tighten before November, though many of them are still feeling bullish.
Walking around Rocky Point Park along the Narragansett Bay here, Fung could hardly walk a few steps without voters stopping him to say hello or wish him luck. Fung joked that it’s easier for voters to recognize him as the first Asian American elected mayor in the state; he would also be the state’s first Asian American member of Congress.
Many said they appreciated that Fung is a lifelong Rhode Islander, unlike some of his potential opponents. The Republican talks about his sister's life with disabilities and his mom's reliance on Medicare — which, like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Fung would expand to cover vision care, dental care and hearing aids. Some also know his wife, Barbara Ann Fenton, a GOP state legislator who ousted the sitting House speaker two years ago.
“I’m hoping he wins the seat,” said Pamela Dennen, a 51-year-old business owner from Warwick, R.I. Dennen said she doesn’t affiliate with a party but praised Fung for understanding they live in a “working-class community, stuck between two rich enclaves” — Massachusetts and Connecticut.
It helps, Dennen said, that she regularly sees Fung around town, even running into him at her favorite deli.
Another factor in Fung’s favor, for now: While he's essentially cleared the field on the GOP side, Democrats won’t choose their candidate for another month.
Magaziner, the state treasurer, is Langevin’s handpicked successor but faces a formidable challenge from former Commerce Department official Sarah Morgenthau. The 2nd District "has always been a competitive" one, Magaziner argues.
And it's full of voters like Hope Nelson. The 74-year-old Warwick resident, declined to share her party affiliation, said she hasn’t yet made up her mind about who she’ll vote for in November but that Fung’s “reputation is excellent.”
“I just think it is time to make a change,” Nelson said, reflecting on national leadership.
Katherine Tully-McManus contributed.