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GOP shortfalls clear path for Cicilline ’83

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, November 15, 2012

Though polls predicted a close race, Rep. David Cicilline ’83, D-R.I., defeated Republican challenger Brendan Doherty by more than 12 points.

In the months preceding last week’s elections, analysts across Rhode Island argued that Rep. David Cicilline ’83, D-R.I., was in danger of losing his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. But once the votes were tallied last Tuesday night, results showed the incumbent defeated his Republican opponent Brendan Doherty 52.9 to 40.8 percent. Though Rhode Islanders typically elect Democrats to national offices, the final 12-point difference contrasts sharply with polls taken prior to the election that showed a split electorate.

“It’s very difficult to unseat an incumbent,” said Tony Affigne, professor of political science at Providence College. Traditionally, an incumbent can only be defeated either during their first reelection campaign or in one much farther down the line, when he or she has become detached from the district, he said. In Tuesday’s election, Cicilline was “most vulnerable – he won by 12 points,” he added.

“He survived the first dangerous curve,” Affigne said.

Cicilline spent much of the last year fending off challenges – first from Democrat Anthony Gemma in the primaries and later from Doherty. Both challengers cited Cicilline’s statement during his second term as mayor of Providence that the city was in “excellent” fiscal condition as an example of the incumbent’s untrustworthiness. His successor, Mayor Angel Taveras, announced in March 2011 that the city was facing a “category five” financial crisis with a structural deficit of $110 million.

Affigne said Cicilline may have suffered from the legacy of his statements, but he also missed a chance to tie the city’s fiscal condition to Republican economic policy. “The deterioration of the city’s fiscal condition began during the Bush years, when the state and Republican Governor Donald Carcieri withdrew support from cities and towns,” he said. “He could have deflected the responsibility for the city’s condition – and rightly so – on to the very Republican Party he was running against.”

Despite across-the-board victories for the Democrats in Rhode Island – they added four seats to their majority in the General Assembly – Republicans have not been defeated for good in the first congressional district, Affigne said. He pointed to former representative Ronald Machtley, who served in the early 1990s, as proof that the district can elect a Republican. The district may be heavily Democratic, but if Republicans can convince the equally large independent bloc to vote for them, they can win any state election, he added.

The most obvious obstacle to Rhode Island Republican candidates this cycle was the state’s commitment to the national Democratic Party and its presidential nominee, President Obama, said Rhode Island Public Radio political analyst Scott MacKay on Morning Edition. “The fact of this race always was people in Rhode Island agreed with him on the issues more than they agreed with Brendan Doherty,” he said.

In a state where people are going to vote for Obama, MacKay said, Democrats did a very good job of asking, “If you’re going to vote to give the president another four years, why would you then vote to thwart everything he wants to do?”

Doherty’s national party leadership, failure to court important demographic groups and poor campaign structure combined to prevent him from bringing more voters to his side of the aisle.

The Republican presidential primaries pushed Mitt Romney far to the right, Affigne noted, making the differences between Democrats and Republicans very clear. “The national Republican Party created a tone in the first district that suggested to voters that the Republican Party – if it were brought to power – would probably enact laws which most of the first district voters would disagree with,” he added.

MacKay echoed this theme on Morning Edition. “If the Republican Party is going to become the party of white, male, southern resentment, they’re going to have a very difficult time in New England,” he said.

Republican unwillingness to court Latino voters – one of the most solid Democratic voting blocs – hurt conservative candidates on both state and national levels, Affigne said. “If you look at voting results, Cicilline’s largest margins were in the three communities that have the largest Latino populations,” he said.

“Doherty made very little effort to reach out to Latinos at all, and you cannot walk away from 12 percent of the electorate and expect to win the election,” Affigne said.

Affigne also criticized Doherty for presenting a negative campaign without a specific optimistic vision. “Doherty’s ground game and electoral strategy were not up to the task,” he said.

Doherty needed to argue the possible benefits of having a Republican in Congress instead of only emphasizing the negatives of Cicilline’s re-election, Affigne said. For example, he could have argued that “with Republicans in leadership, a Republican (representative) might have more influence than a Democrat would,” or that “his experience in law enforcement would make him a more thoughtful candidate,” Affigne said.

“If you don’t have an advertising strategy that creates a positive backdrop for the campaign, its difficult to get out the vote,” Affigne said. “Cicilline had grassroots support and got out the vote, because his campaign resonated more persuasively.”

MacKay said Rhode Island Republicans need to select better candidates if they want to become a statewide party. None of the candidates – Republican Senate candidate Barry Hinckley Jr., Republican congressional candidate Michael Riley and Doherty – had served in elected office before running in this cycle. Their Democratic counterparts invariably had held lower office before stepping up to the statewide level, he noted.

“The state legislature is like the farm team for people who run statewide … and (they) have to build the party up from the grassroots, which is very difficult when (they) have these real fissures between the liberals and the conservatives and the moderates,” MacKay said. “There are only 12 Republicans in the state. You put them all in one room, the problem is they all hate each other,” he added facetiously.

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