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How Cicilline won

A Congressman's comeback
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  November 7, 2012

VICTORY Cicilline on election night.

It was Tuesday morning and Eric Hyers, Congressman David Cicilline's lanky, sharp-tongued campaign manager, was sitting in a Starbucks on the bottom floor of the Biltmore Hotel gripping a wiffle ball and furiously sending text messages.

It was Election Day and he was obviously a bit nervous. Little wonder. His boss was considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the country. And the most recent public opinion poll had shown the incumbent clinging to a one-point lead.

Hyers, though, assured me that Cicilline would win. And by the end of the day the Congressman had proven him right, triggering a Biltmore party that would leave the campaign manager more than a little hung over the next morning.

But Cicilline's final margin — 12 points — was larger than even the most optimistic supporter might have imagined. So, what happened?


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

Cicilline's approval ratings plunged to Nixonian levels. Worse, actually. And by February of this year, a WPRI-TV poll had him trailing the likely Republican nominee, former superintendent of state police Brendan Doherty, by 15 points.

A comeback, it was clear, was going to be difficult. But the basic strategy was never in doubt. On Tuesday, campaign press secretary Nicole Kayner joined Hyers at the coffee shop. And she said the joke between the pair was that they've never worked on a campaign with a simpler message: the opponent is a Republican.

Indeed, Cicilline had to make the race about the divide between Democrats and Republicans, about a national GOP brand that has grown increasingly toxic in Rhode Island. And that's just what he did: relentlessly working to tie Doherty to House Republicans on Medicare, Social Security, tax hikes for millionaires, and abortion.

If the message was an obvious one, so was the tactical approach. Like President Obama, Cicilline would focus on turning out three key demographics: Latinos, young voters, and women.

Doherty's starting point was pretty obvious, too: he had to separate himself from the Republican Party as best he could and hit Cicilline for his mistruths on Providence's finances.

But then, there were was a strategic call to make. Should the campaign focus, exclusively, on Providence's finances? Or should it use Cicilline's "excellent" statement as Exhibit A in a broader case for the Congressman's dishonesty and manipulation? Soon, an opportunity for the latter course presented itself.

As the campaign entered the homestretch, Cicilline hit Doherty for his failure to support an expansion of the Violence Against Women Act. Ian Prior, the Republican's campaign manager, says Dohertyworld knew the attack might be coming. But the Republican's aides were a little surprised, nonetheless. Cicilline, they believed, had opened himself up to a potent attack.

Doherty needed an opening. A late September poll by WPRI-TV had given Cicilline a 6-point edge in the race. Cicilline, as Prior would later acknowledge, had boxed his Republican opponent into a corner.

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