On Tuesday, David Cicilline staved off Republican Brendan Doherty to win re-election to Rhode Island’s 1st district Congressional seat.
Rhode Island’s First Congressional District occupies the northeast corner of the state, encompassing Providence, Bristol and Newport County. Only one Republican, Ronald Machtley, has been elected to represent the district in nearly seventy years. The incumbent Cicilline served as mayor of Providence from 2003 to 2011 and was elected as a representative in 2010. He has been endorsed by President Obama; in a radio ad, Bill Clinton called him “one of America’s most innovative and effective mayors.”
But despite his experience and party support, Cicilline’s public approval was low. In late October, WPRI-TV calculated that Cicilline had the lowest approval rating out of all of Rhode Island’s legislative representatives, with 59 percent of the people in his district believing he is doing a poor or fair job. Even this percentage is up from the 65 percent negative he received in the station’s February poll. His low approval stems largely from his coverup of Providence’s poor financial condition in 2010, during his first run for Congress.
The challenger came in the form of Colonel Brendan Doherty. Doherty served in the Rhode Island State Police since graduating from Rhode Island College in the early 80s. In 2007, Governor Carcieri appointed him as the eleventh Superintendent of the State Police. Although he had long been an Independent, Doherty became an attractive candidate to the Rhode Island Republicans soon after his 2011 retirement—a perfect contrast to Cicilline, perpetually tagged by opponents as a career politician. “Soon after he retired, some people—I don’t know who—approached him and told him he should consider running for office. Political people, they saw potential in him,” Robert Coupe, political director of the Doherty campaign, told the Independent. In early 2011, Doherty declared his candidacy.
The race was identified by many, from the Boston Globe to WRNI, as one of the most vicious contests the state has ever seen. Each major candidate fundraised over a million dollars. The National Republican Congressional Committee sponsored ads attacking Cicilline for the clients he represented as a defense attorney, while Doherty was hurt by association with the national Republican Party. A local group called “Democrats for Doherty” was chaired by former State Representative Joanne Giannini. The group is filled with past District One mayors and citizens, many of whom would not have considered Doherty if it were not for their dissatisfaction with Cicilline.
Other disaffected Democrats gravitated to progressive independent David Vogel. Running his entire campaign on less than $100, Vogel nevertheless received nearly 6% of the vote. He talked to the Independent the week before the election. “Depending on who you speak with, either I am a Democratic plant in order to strip votes from Doherty, or I am ruining Mr. Cicilline’s chance,” he said. “Either way, I basically tell them to shove it.”
The anti-Doherty website launched by the Rhode Island Democratic Party shows a collage of national Republican candidates and presidents, along with the words “Republican Brendan Doherty is no different. He’s just another member of the Romney Republican party.” Doherty’s campaign was aware of the danger of association from the start. “The Rhode Island Republican Party is often brought down by the national Republican Party, which is dominated by people who are more conservative than the average Rhode Islander,” Coupe told the Independent. “We are tied to the more conservative wing of the party, who don’t understand what it’s like to be from Rhode Island.” Cicilline’s commercials call Doherty “not the right choice for Rhode Island,” while Democratic Party Chairman Ed Pacheco called Doherty's attack advertisements on Cicilline "un-Rhode Island-like."
Their strategy proved successful, with Cicilline winning 53% of the vote. Doherty received a mere 41%—a much lower number than the polls anticipated. “The challenge for Doherty, even though it looks like he has momentum, was that you have to get a lot of people in district who will vote for Obama to then say, “I vote Democrat, Democrat, and now I am going to vote Republican,’” said Professor Schiller. “No matter how much he tries, there is a big R next to his name.”
MARY-EVELYN FARRIOR B'14 tells them to shove it.