In the First District Congressional Race being decided Tuesday, Democrat David Cicilline '83 and Republican John Loughlin are locked in a competitive race to replace retiring Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I. Though the district they are vying to represent leans Democratic, poll numbers show a narrowing of Cicilline's initial lead and the possibility of Republican inroads in Rhode Island in an election cycle which is expected to bring significant GOP gains nationally.
Bolstered by a decisive fundraising advantage and high visibility as one of the state's top politicians, Cicilline has been the clear frontrunner for most of the race. But Loughlin's eleventh-hour surge in the polls suggests that voter dissatisfaction with a Democrat-controlled federal government and the state's continuing economic woes could turn the tide in a district once considered safe for the party.
High-profile support floods in
The race took a positive turn for Loughlin, a former state house minority whip from Tiverton and the owner of a Rhode Island media firm, when two polls late last week found him running nearly neck-and-neck against an opponent he had long trailed by double digits.
The WPRI-Channel 12 poll Friday gave Cicilline a six-point lead among likely voters, a sharp dip compared to his 19-point lead in the station's poll taken one month prior, and found 10 percent undecided. A WJAR-Channel 10 survey showed an even closer race, with Cicilline's lead falling within the poll's margin of error.
A third poll, commissioned by the National Republican Congressional Committee and released Oct. 22, showed Loughlin with a four-point lead among likely voters. Polling conducted on behalf of partisan organizations tend to overstate support for the organization's agenda.
Political heavyweights on both sides have lent their support to the candidates, a clear sign of the contest's importance as Democrats struggle to maintain control of the House of Representatives amidst a slow economic recovery and avoid losing a Kennedy-held seat for the second time in two years. In 2009, Republican Scott Brown won the senate seat long-held by Patrick Kennedy's father, Edward Kennedy, in a surprise upset over Democrat Martha Coakley, landing a symbolic blow to the Democratic party.
The contest made headlines last Monday when President Obama visited the Ocean State to shore up support for Cicilline, the current mayor of Providence and a former state legislator.
Loughlin has also benefited from high-profile endorsements.
The day of Obama's visit, Loughlin campaigned with Brown, underscoring the symbolic importance of the race. Loughlin hopes to capitalize on the voter dissatisfaction that swept Brown into office this January.
Last Friday, Sen. John McCain endorsed Loughlin in a video, saying he would be "proud to serve" with the retired U.S. Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel. Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and potential presidential candidate in 2012, also announced his support for Loughlin and headlined a rally for him Monday in East Providence.
The Loughlin campaign has seen a positive response from Rhode Islanders to its message of "less spending, lower taxes and smaller government," according to Loughlin campaign manager Cara Cromwell.
Cromwell said Loughlin is focused on "jobs and the economy" and would focus on creating a climate more favorable to business growth if elected. She said Loughlin favors a plan to "repeal and replace" the health care reform law with legislation that cuts costs through tort reform and "allowing plans to compete across state lines."
Cicilline supports the creation of a $2 billion grant program to help Rhode Island manufacturers "retool existing factories, retrain their workers and buy new equipment," according to campaign spokesman Rich Luchette.
He also has proposed an infrastructure investment "on the scale of the" Works Progress Administration to rebuild transit and technology infrastructure and "regional guarantee funds administered through local small business administration offices" to provide small businesses access to capital, Luchette said.
Cicilline is "looking to fight hard for those specific, pragmatic, innovative proposals that will really help to put our economy back on the right track," Luchette said.
Ponzi schemes and pay raises
The tone of the campaign has grown increasingly hostile in recent weeks, with each candidate attempting to exploit his opponent's perceived weaknesses.
Cicilline charged Loughlin early in the campaign with seeking to privatize Social Security. Loughlin has called Social Security a "Ponzi scheme" and has stated that he supports offering individuals the choice to invest part of their earnings in order to maintain the program's solvency.
During the candidates' final debate last Friday, Cicilline called Loughlin's plan "exactly what President Bush talked about when he tried to privatize Social Security."
The Providence mayor's pledge that he will protect Social Security in its current form is likely to resonate with senior citizens, a key demographic group whose support he needs to win, according to Wendy Schiller, associate professor of political science.
Loughlin has criticized Cicilline for accepting erroneous pay raises at taxpayer expense, even filling a wheelbarrow with $20,000 to draw attention to the unauthorized money the mayor accepted from 2006 to 2009.
Cicilline, though, did not notice the pay raise because his "take-home pay" actually decreased due to a 20 percent health insurance co-pay that went into effect at the time the raises began, according to Cicilline campaign manager Eric Hyers.
The mayor has also come under fire after a city auditor's report released last week found that under Cicilline's tenure, the city failed to make monthly payments to its pension system and that its reserve accounts have fallen from $36.6 million to $4.6 million.
Hyers called the report "a political hit job by someone who is a member of the old guard of folks who have resisted the reform and change that David's brought to City Hall over the past eight years." He also pointed to the "suspicious" timing of the findings, released on the eve of the election.
Last Tuesday, the Providence firefighters union sued the mayor for a "breach of fiduciary duty" by neglecting to fund the city pension system in the last fiscal year, according to the Oct. 28 Providence Journal. The lawsuit is the latest development in a rocky relationship between the mayor and city firefighters, who reached a contract agreement in early October.
The problem or the solution?
Negative press may be contributing to Cicilline's declining lead in the polls, according to Victor Profughi, Rhode Island College professor emeritus of political science and director of the polling firm Quest Research. Another reason is Loughlin's increased visibility, Profughi said.
"Loughlin, because he was underfunded and not particularly well known across the entire district, had to establish himself and gain recognition," Profughi said. He added that endorsements from Democrats in the district's Blackstone Valley, where nearly 40 percent of likely voters reside, have also boosted Loughlin.
The race has become "more competitive," according to Maureen Moakley, chair of the University of Rhode Island department of political science.
The outcome of the contest will depend on whether voters can view Cicilline, widely regarded an effective mayor, as an agent of change in Congress, according to Moakley.
"It's a question of how they take to Cicilline's idea that Washington is broken, and he's going down there to fix it," Moakley said. "Is he part of the problem or is he part of the solution?"
The performance of other Democrats, particularly in the governor's race
, may have an impact on Cicilline's Election Day prospects, according to Schiller, the political science professor. A weaker showing by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Frank Caprio could hurt Cicilline, while a strong turnout for Democratic mayoral candidate Angel Taveras could help him, Schiller added.
Flagging enthusiasm among the district's Democrats could also influence the race, according to Schiller.
"You talk to a lot of people, and they're not all as staunch Democrats as they were a couple years ago, and many of them are very disappointed in Obama," Schiller said. "You could say the district has been very strongly Democratic, but I don't know if it continues to be very strongly Democratic."