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Election 2012: the big finish

Cicilline and Doherty go to the wire — and what it all means
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  October 31, 2012

Doherty-Cicilline_main

If you live in Rhode Island, own a television, and have a pulse, you know there is a quite nasty Congressional race underway, pitting Representative David Cicilline against Republican challenger Brendan Doherty.

But the Cicilline-Doherty tilt is not the only contest of consequence this election season. Rhode Island Speaker of the House Gordon Fox faces an unexpectedly spirited challenge. And a handful of state senate races could determine the fate of gay marriage legislation.

When the polls close, moreover, we should have a better sense for some of the big, long-term questions hovering over Rhode Island politics: Does the state's moribund Republican Party have a future? What is the shape of the 2014 governor's race? And does the truth matter anymore?

Heady stuff, eh?

The Phoenix's Election Spectacular is divided into two parts. Part I: the Cicilline-Doherty race. Part II: the rest. Let's dig in.


Part I: Cicilline and Doherty


WILL DOHERTY'S ATTACKS WORK?

A new WPRI-TV poll shows Cicilline clinging to a narrow 43-42 lead over Doherty, down from the six-point edge he held a month ago.

It is the first public poll conducted entirely after Doherty went on the air October 1 with a series of brutal attack ads on Cicilline. And while it is difficult to isolate the impact of those ads, the survey suggests they are working.

There is, of course, plenty of material for Doherty to exploit.

Cicilline was still serving as mayor of Providence when he launched his first Congressional bid in 2010. And his campaign declaration that the city was in "excellent" fiscal condition came back to bite him when new Providence Mayor Angel Taveras declared a "Category 5 hurricane" on the city's books after the election.

Doherty's first wave of negative ads focused on the imbroglio over Providence's finances. A second wave, launched just as the WPRI survey went into the field, targeted Cicilline for defending "rapists, pedophiles, and murderers" as a defense lawyer before he rose to the mayor's office. A new ad, paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee, pounds the same theme in even tougher fashion.

This race is a referendum on the incumbent and the GOP is hitting as hard as it can. Will it be enough to put Doherty over the top? We'll know on election night.


WILL CICILLINE'S GERRYMANDERING WORK?

Last winter, Cicilline pulled off a rather remarkable bit of gerrymandering — shuffling 75,000 voters between his district and that of Congressman James Langevin, when a simple shift of 7200 would have sufficed to even off the state's two Congressional districts.

After an initial explosion of attention — the Phoenix, with typical reserve, put a mushroom cloud on its cover and titled my behind-the-scenes account of the Cicilline-Langevin clash "Armageddon" — redistricting has received scant attention.

In a close election, though, Cicilline's gerrymander could make all the difference.

Redistricting excised Burrillville, where Cicilline did not perform well in the last election, and added south Providence — its large Latino population a mainstay of Cicilline's mayoral elections.

Of course, Latino turnout typically lags behind that of whites and blacks. But if Cicilline — aided by the presidential race at the top of the ticket — can get south Providence to the polls in substantial numbers, it could serve as a bulwark against Doherty's expected suburban strength.

Indeed, Cicilline will have to rack up big margins throughout Providence if he is to hold off his Republican opponent. And while there was some concern early on about how he'd perform in the staunchly Democratic capital city, given the fiscal hangover from his mayoralty, that concern seems to be fading with partisan allegiances hardening in the run-up to a high-profile election.

Doherty, meanwhile, will have to improve upon the performance of John J. Loughlin, II, the Republican who lost to Cicilline by six points in 2010. That means expanding on Loughlin's thin margins in the Blackstone Valley municipalities of Woonsocket and Cumberland. Doherty will also have to perform better than Loughlin in the tony East Bay.


WOMEN, WOMEN, WOMEN

Cicilline, like President Obama, has built his campaign around an appeal to a handful of key demographics: women, Latinos, and young people.

Women, of course, are the most important of those voting blocs — not just because they make up the largest chunk of the electorate, but because they are more likely to show up at the polls.

Cicilline has highlighted abortion rights whenever he can and touted his endorsements from the National Organization for Women and NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Doherty is hyper aware of the importance of the women's vote and he's made a concerted play in the closing weeks of the campaign. His ad highlighting Cicilline's defense of "rapists, pedophiles, and murderers" is at the center of that project.

Is it working? The WPRI poll went into the field just as it began airing, so it's difficult to know if the spot's effect was captured. But for what it's worth, Cicilline's 13-point edge with women voters was identical to his lead from a month previous.

That's either a sign of Cicilline's enduring appeal to women or evidence that Doherty has prevented the Congressman from expanding his margin with a key demographic, depending on your point of view.

One thing to keep in mind: the harsh tone of the Republicans' ads risks turning off some of the suburban women Doherty is hoping to win over.


DOES THE TRUTH MATTER?

Under normal circumstances, a Democratic incumbent in deep blue Rhode Island would cruise to re-election. The race is only tight because of Cicilline's misleading statements about the health of Providence's finances.

The contest, then, provides a fascinating case study in whether the truth still matters in American politics.

When it comes to the hyperpartisan presidential race, where driving the base to the polls is of primary importance, the answer seems a resounding "no." Hence, the Romney campaign's often jaw-dropping distortions.

But if the Romney-Ryan ticket benefits from the deep chasm between red and blue, it also gets a pass because of its relatively fresh faces. The nation, if a bit wary, is not yet disgusted with the pair. As I suggested in a Phoenix cover story in September (see "Does the Truth Matter?," 9.5.12), long-serving local pols like Cicilline don't have novelty on their side.

Rhode Island has known Cicilline for years; he lost his shine long before his statements about the capital city's balance sheet. And the electorate, its distaste mature, may be willing to push partisanship aside and boot the incumbent.

Cicilline hopes not. He is hammering Democratic talking points on Medicare, Obamacare, and taxes. He is constantly reminding voters about the GOP's national agenda, and constantly working to tie Doherty to that agenda.

We'll see, on election day, if "post-truth" politics plays on the local level.

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  Topics: News Features , elections, Brendan Doherty, Voting,  More more >
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