WPRI’s debate this evening between Congressman David Cicilline and Republican challenger Brendan Doherty comes as the First Congressional District race remains up for grabs. Just consider last week’s Brown University poll: it showed Cicilline with a lead of slightly less than 6 percentage points. Yet the margin of that lead was smaller than 1) the roughly 7 percent of support for independent candidate David Vogel; 2) the approximately seven percent of undecided voters; and 3) the margin of error of just over 6 percentage points.
With the election precisely three weeks away, a lot remains on the line as Doherty and Cicilline prepare to take the Providence Performing Arts Center stage for the 7 pm debate. Here’s some of what we’re watching for:
1. CAN DOHERTY OVERCOME EXPECTATIONS? The former state police superintendent, a career law enforcement guy before targeting a run for Congress, has faced a sometimes rough transition in moving from cop-speak to the patter of a candidate. Cicilline, on the other hand, is a smooth-talking on-message machine. He’s been steeped in the nuances of policy and government as a congressman, mayor of Providence and state rep. It was no surprise that Cicilline welcomed a full plate of debates with Doherty. So just outperforming his more modest rhetorical expectations would be a triumph for the Republican.
2. CAN CICILLINE EFFECTIVELY DEFLECT CRITICISM? The Democrat’s glass jaw, in the mind of some campaign-watchers, remains his job performance at City Hall as he was running for Congress in 2010, including the famous line about the city’s supposedly “excellent” fiscal condition. Cicilline’s description of this has evolved over time, going from “taking responsibility” for his decisions, to an outright apology tour earlier this year. For its part, Doherty’s campaign waited until relatively recently to go after Cicilline’s record as mayor. So will Doherty zero in on the litany of possible issues (like this and this and this). And if he does, will Cicilline be able to pivot back to his own line of attack without appearing to avoid the subject?
3. CAN DOHERTY SHOW A GOOD GRASP OF POLICY? Doherty’s first in-depth interview as a candidate, on WPRI/WNAC-TV’s Newsmakers in March, was far from a strong debut. In perhaps the most egregious example, his meandering answer to a question about Bush-era tax cuts sounded as if it was being composed on the spot. Doherty has worked energetically as a campaigner, and he’s improved in several respects. He is probably not expected to get into the weeds of wonkery on a level with a longtime pol like Cicilline. But the Democrat would probably love to elicit a Gerald Ford-style gaffe (or three) from the first-time candidate. Doherty needs to be able to thrust and parry, while clearly articulating his stance on major policies.
4. CAN CICILLINE MAKE HIS OWN CASE? Even when his poll ratings when in sub-Richard Nixon territory, Cicilline had an undeniable ace in his pocket: 66 percent of CD1 voters cast ballots for President Obama in 2008. That alone makes taking on a Democrat, even a damaged one, an uphill battle. The district, moreover, has gotten somewhat less conservative, thanks to redistricting engineered by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly. Cicilline, meanwhile, has consistently linked Doherty with Republicans like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. In the end, that may well be a winning strategy for the Democrat. Yet one has to wonder whether Cicilline will also try to make the rhetorical case based on his own merits, instead of relying largely on the GOP boogey man.
5. CAN DOHERTY EXPLAIN WHY OBAMA VOTERS SHOULD SUPPORT HIM? Getting somewhere close to 40,000 to 50,000 Obama voters in CD1 to split their November ballot (see item 4) is no easy trick. Doherty’s path to victory rests in considerable part on allaying concerns that he won’t be part and parcel of an increasingly conservative Republican majority in the House. His refrain on the campaign trail is that he’s his own man. Is that enough to convince enough voters?
6. CAN CICILLINE STRIKE THE RIGHT BALANCE? The Democrat’s re-election fight is a test case in whether an elected official can battle back from a serious trust problem. To turn in a winning debate performance while under fire from Doherty, Cicilline has to be a lot of different things: contrite (but not too contrite); smooth (but not too smooth); positive about his record (but not out-of-bounds unrealistic), and so on. Some of this will depend on the quality of Doherty’s performance. But it will also flow from what Cicilline brings to a performance he’s had plenty of time to consider.
Watch for my recap here after the debate.