PROVIDENCE, RI – A year is a lifetime in politics these days, but there is little doubt that Cicilline's reelection has drawn the most interest so far. A flock of credible candidates are lining up to challenge the freshman Democrat and he is out meeting and greeting as if the vote was taking place next month rather than next year.
Two Republicans are busy readying campaigns to challenge Cicilline - former state Representative John Loughlin, and former state police superintendent Brendan Doherty. And two Democrats are mulling a primary challenge to Cicilline - businessman Anthony Gemma and banker Merrill Sherman.
Cicilline has had a rocky start. The former Providence mayor has been sharply criticized for being a poor manager of the city in his final years as mayor. Barely two months after he left , the new mayor, Angel Taveras and the Providence City Council, had to clean up a huge deficit leftover from Cicilline's tenure as mayor.
Cicilline has drawn criticism for assuring voters that city finances were in good shape as he was campaigning for Congress. But it looked to many like Cicilline was too eager to put Providence in his rear view mirror as he pleaded for votes to send him in to Washington.
Cicilline has had problems keeping staff: his first choices for Rhode Island district director and press secretary are already history. But his biggest challenge is being a freshman Democrat in a Republican-controlled House. There is no one in Congress with less clout than a minority party House member.
While Republicans salivate over the chance to defeat Cicilline, no one should write his obituary yet. Rhode Island's 1st district is one of the most Democratic-leaning in the country. It regularly sends Democrats to Congress and gives its votes to Democratic presidential candidates. The non-partisan Cook Political Reports rates the district as one that votes roughly 13 percentage points above the national average for Democrats.
The District runs from the wealthy neighborhoods near Brown University in Providence, through Bristol County and south along the east spine of Narragansett Bay to the Gilded Age mansions of Newport. And the district includes the struggling old factory cities of Central Falls, Woonsocket and Pawtucket. It has large French-Canadian, Italian-American and Portuguese-American communities and big blocs of elderly and Roman Catholic voters.
Cicilline's most serious challenge would come in a primary, probably from Sherman, the president of Bank RI and both the only women and the only candidate with serious financial experience.
Doherty has done an impressive job raising money and getting around the district. Yet, he is a first time candidate and one never knows how well he will play on the campaign circuit. So far, Doherty's biggest roadblock appears to be a Republican primary. These are generally low-turnout affairs (the last seriously contested one in 2002 drew just 12,000 voters) and Doherty must attract some independents to defeat the more conservative Loughlin.
Despite all the bad publicity about his tenure as mayor, Cicilline has strengths in a general election. Presidential elections historically bring out more Democrats. Those voters may have some misgivings about Cicilline, but in the end they would probably support him rather than give the Tea Party crowd in Washington another congressional Republican
There are no statewide elections next year, although Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is running for reelection. So far, Whitehouse has drawn just one GOP challenger, little-known Barry Hinckley of Newport. So the 1st District House election will be Rhode Island's high-profile contest next year.
At this point, all we can invoke is the biblical axiom: The race is not always to the swift or strong. Time and chance make this election unpredictable.
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