How the Northeast Became Democratic, Part I: Rhode Island

One of the most fundamental shifts in 20th century politics was the shift of the Northeast from Republican to Democrat. While lazy pop historians claim that the Northeast was always liberal and it was the GOP that switched, this story isn’t true. Let’s examine the states on an individual basis, with the first one being Rhode Island, as it was the first state to go Democrat.

Since the Civil War, Rhode Island had reliably voted Republican in presidential elections, but by the early 1900s, the state had more registered Democrats than Republicans, yet the state reliably sent two Republicans to the Senate, one of whom was Nelson W. Aldrich. He was the most powerful senator of his time and the closest ally of John D. Rockefeller, whose son had married his daughter. One of his grandsons, Nelson Rockefeller, would be a prominent liberal Republican governor of New York and Vice President during the Ford Administration. Aldrich was widely regarded as the “economic manager of the nation” and with his “Big Four” clique of senators that included Orville Platt (R-Conn.), William B. Allison (R-Iowa), and John C. Spooner (R-Wis.), they steered Senate policy and stood staunchly against government intervention in the private sector.

Nelson W. Aldrich, the most prominent of the Rhode Island Republicans

The state of affairs in Rhode Island was able to continue due to its rather unique system of state legislative apportionment as well as the corrupt practices that plagued the state’s elections. Each township got one representative in the state house, which meant that a small town would receive the same representation as Providence. These small towns were reliable Republican votes, and these voting habits were partially reinforced through bribing individual voters (Steffens, 1905). This was a common practice for the Republican and Democratic parties of the state.  This system resulted in these small towns outweighing more Democratic urban areas and since state legislatures elected senators, Republicans would always win Senate races. However, the 1910 election would be the beginning of the end for GOP control of the state. Aldrich’s reputation had been tarnished by a Lincoln Steffens expose, “Rhode Island: A State for Sale”, alleging corruption on his part. He thus opted not to run for reelection that year. Although a Republican was elected in his place that year, the Republican Party suffered a thrashing nationwide as the voters were tired of the GOP as led by the autocratic and staunchly conservative Joseph G. Cannon (R-Ill.) and by Nelson Aldrich in the Senate. This push is significant as it resulted in the 17th Amendment, which made elections to the Senate by popular vote rather than state legislature, losing the GOP its built-in advantage.

This loss was immediately apparent in the first Senate election by popular vote in the state when Aldrich’s successor, Henry F. Lippitt, lost reelection in 1916 to Democrat Peter Gerry by over eight points despite the state voting for Charles Evans Hughes over Woodrow Wilson for president.  This was the first time since the establishment of the Republican Party that the state elected a Democratic senator. The state maintained its traditional affiliation when voting for Warren G. Harding in 1920 and Calvin Coolidge in 1924, but in the 1928 things were different. Although the voters ousted Democrat Peter Gerry for Republican Felix Hebert, Democrat Al Smith won the presidential vote. Hebert managed to pull off the victory due to his French-Canadian extraction, as many Rhode Island voters were and are French-Canadian. Another factor for the state turning away from the Republican Party was that in the past 30 years a substantial number of Irish and Italian Catholics had immigrated to the state, and they voted Democrat. However, it was the Great Depression that finally did the Rhode Island GOP in.

Theodore F. Green, the man who led Rhode Island’s political transformation

In 1932 as FDR won in a landslide, Rhode Island’s two Republican Congressmen lost reelection and politically transformative Democrat Theodore Green was elected governor. In 1934, Senator Felix Hebert was defeated in a rematch with Democrat Peter Gerry. In January 1935, the General Assembly was to convene and while Democrats controlled the House, the Republicans controlled the Senate 22-20. However, Lt. Governor Robert Quinn refused to seat two Republican senators who were certified and appointed a committee of three senators to recount the ballots for the races behind closed doors. They unanimously declared the Democrats as the victors, after which the legislature dramatically reorganized state government to favor Democratic programs and job-seekers and replaced the Supreme Court within fourteen minutes (Mayhew, 16). The Democratic Party had taken solid control of the state. The following year, Republican Senator Jesse Metcalf, who had opposed the New Deal to the point of voting against Social Security, lost reelection to Green. Although Republicans would take Rhode Island’s two House seats in 1938, they promptly lost reelection in 1940. No Republican would be elected to federal office from Rhode Island until 1976, when the state had a resurgence of Republicans (who were liberal to moderate) that lasted until the 1990s.

Rhode Island has never reverted to conservative Republicanism and today stands as one of the most liberal states, with Democrats holding all federal offices as well as the governorship. After 1956, the state only voted Republican for president twice: Nixon’s reelection in 1972 and Reagan’s reelection in 1984. These were elections in which only one state voted for the losing candidate. It would take nothing short of a political earthquake for the state to shake off its Democratic status.


Mayhew, D.R. (2011). Partisan balance: Why political parties don’t kill the U.S. constitutional system. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Steffens, L. (1905). Rhode Island: A State for Sale. McClure’s Magazine.

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