Doherty, Cicilline down the homestretch in CD 1

Oct 19, 2012

We’re down to the wire with Republican Brendan Doherty and Democrat David Cicilline. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay parses the nail-biter that is Rhode Island 1st District congressional campaign.

Voters in the 19 communities that make up Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District are being courted by Republican Doherty and Democrat Cicilline with the ardor of a battleground presidential state.

As the days dwindle to Nov. 6, this race is the only one in Rhode Island that is being seriously watched by national Republicans and Democrats. Democrats probably won’t win back the House. But this we know: they haven’t any chance if they lose such reliably Democratic seats as Cicilline’s.

Cicilline has the edge in recent public opinion polls, but he is still under the magic number of   50 percent, which is not where an incumbent wants to be this close to Election Day. Yet, he has advantages. His Democratic allies on Smith Hill gerrymandered the district to help him, packing in more Latino and working-class voters from his home city of Providence while bouncing rural Burrillville into the Second District. And Cicilline’s primary opponent, Anthony Gemma, ran such a silly campaign that he helped Cicilline jump-start his candidacy.

Cicilline also has President Obama at the top of the Democratic ticket. Obama should carry this district with 60 percent of the vote or better. And Rhode Island retains the so-called master lever, that legacy of machine politics that makes straight party voting as easy as checking one box on the long ballot. Presidential elections always bring out more Democrats in our state, another aid to Cicilline.

One downside for Cicilline is the third candidate, lawyer David Vogel, an articulate candidate from the left side of the political spectrum. Any votes he gets probably come from the Democrat.

Cicilline’s challenge is to keep pounding away at the Democratic national themes, such as raising taxes on the wealthy, making government investments in infrastructure and education and preserving Medicare and  Social Security for another generation.

Most of Cicilline’s problems are of his own making.

In  2010, when he was still Providence mayor, Cicilline made the colossal blunder of calling city finances excellent. When that proved not to be true, his response was flat-footed and disingenuous.

For Doherty, the battle is to get Obama voters to split their tickets. The former state police superintendent must harvest votes among Roman Catholic voters in the Blackstone Valley and East Bay suburbs who are socially conservative and believe Cicilline has drifted too far left. Doherty has run the best Republican campaign in this district since Dr. Kevin Vigilante’s 1994 loss to Patrick Kennedy, he of   Democratic royalty. For those seeking bellwether communities, watch Pawtucket, East Providence and Bristol: whoever wins two of those is probably on his way to Washington in January.

Doherty has done a great job of raising money and building an organization. He has been a dogged campaigner and, after some initial stumbles on issues, he now has a better grasp. His pitch is that he would be better able to work both sides of the polarized congressional aisle than Cicilline, who sings the liberal doxology.

Doherty has gotten better in debates and in media appearances. And he keeps pressing Cicilline on the disaster that was Providence finances in Cicilline’s final year as mayor. The end game for Doherty is the need to persuade undecided voters that he really would go to Washington and work and vote in Rhode Island’s interest and not the interests of a Republican Party in Congress dominated by the Old Confederacy, the Sunbelt and the Tea Party. The former state police superintendent also ought to remind voters that with Republicans likely to hold the House, he can do more for Rhode Island than Cicilline, a back  bencher in the minority House party.

In the final weeks, Doherty needs grass-roots help from Rhode Island Republicans. Our state’s Republican Party is arguably the nation’s weakest. For the first time since the mid-1970s, there are no Republicans in statewide or federal offices. There is no real Republican presence at the State House. And only about 10 percent of Rhode Island voters now identify as Republican.

Doherty likes to say he would lead in the manner of the late John Chafee, the quintessential New England moderate. But John Chafee, a supporter of the Environmental Protection Agency, abortion rights and universal health care,  was last elected in 1994. He couldn’t win a closed Republican primary anywhere in the nation today.

Democrats still have the archaic remains of   a party that has dominated politics in our state since Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. That, combined with organized labor and the emerging Latino political muscle in Providence should give Cicilline a ground game edge. The Old Testament reminds us that the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong. But as that noted political philosopher Damon Runyon said, “that’s the way to bet.’’

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40. You can also follow his political analysis and commentary at the `On Politics’ blog at