Part II: The Rest
WHITHER THE GOP?
The Rhode Island Republican Party's ineptitude has been a lament for decades — not just for conservatives, but for civic-minded folk of all stripes who long for a more robust debate in this state.
The GOP seems unlikely to make any significant gains in the General Assembly this fall. And if it stumbles, the party's trademark failures of strategy and tactics will be partly to blame.
Consider the 38 Studios fiasco — a $75 million loan guarantee for an untested businessman in a high-risk sector. It seems tailor-made for an indictment of Democrats' inside dealing and poor economic stewardship but the GOP has done little to capitalize on it.
Messaging, though, is not the only issue. The party's inability to recruit a candidate for a reliably Republican House seat that spans Portsmouth, Tiverton, and Little Compton — a seat once held by Loughlin, who ran against Cicilline for Congress in 2010 — points to a larger failure to recruit a full complement of GOP candidates for General Assembly seats.
Party chairman Mark Zaccaria says the emphasis, this year, was on quality over quantity. And in fairness, finding candidates is no easy task when the bench is so thin — when there are so few Republicans sitting on city councils and looking to make the leap to Smith Hill.
The State House, of course, is not the only prize. And the GOP has a very promising Congressional candidate in Doherty. But if he falls short — if the state's former top cop can't beat a supremely vulnerable Democrat in a down economy — it'll be a pretty strong indication that the local party, whatever its tactical deficiencies, has an even graver problem: the national GOP's increasingly toxic brand.
RACES TO WATCH
Even if the broad composition of the General Assembly seems unlikely to shift in any significant way, there are a few races worth watching.
Start with Speaker Fox, who is facing an unexpectedly sharp challenge from independent Mark Binder. The incumbent has to be considered the favorite, but his ouster would be a rare bit of comeuppance for the 38 Studios fiasco — fitting, somehow, that it would be dealt by an independent rather than a Republican.
A few other House races of note. In 2010, public sector unions worked to oust Democratic Representative Mary Ann Shallcross Smith in the primary. Now, she has a shot at winning back her Lincoln seat as an independent.
Republicans hope Clay Johnson can unseat freshman Democrat Larry Valencia of Wyoming, Rhode Island. And the GOP's Keith Anderson, a teacher and quadriplegic, is making a spirited run at freshman Democrat Lisa Tomasso of Coventry, who won by eight votes in 2010.
With Republican Bob Watson, the former minority leader, stepping down from his East Greenwich post, Dr. Mark Schwager is making a strong bid to put the seat in the Democratic column.
In the Senate, Democrats hope Ryan Pearson can beat Republican Senator Beth Moura of Cumberland in a rematch of their tight 2010 contest. Democrat Leo Raptakis, a former senator, is making a strong push to rejoin the chamber in his challenge to Republican Glenford Shibley.
Republicans are high on Sean Gately, who is making a feisty bid to defeat Democrat Frank Lombardi for the seat held by retiring Democratic Senator Bea Lanzi of Cranston. The party is also hoping that Julian Forgue can prevail, this time, in his quest to unseat Senator Paul Fogarty.
GAY MARRIAGE IN THE BALANCE
With Speaker Fox pledging to push a gay marriage bill through the House early next year, all eyes are on the state senate.
Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed is opposed to same-sex nuptials. And a Phoenix analysis suggests that about half the chamber is on her side, with one-third in favor of gay nuptials, and the balance in the toss-up category.
Rhode Island's same-sex marriage advocates have made a big push to change the composition of the state senate this fall and force Paiva Weed to bring the measure up for a vote next year.
And just before the September primaries, they got a $35,000 cash infusion from Tim Gill, a reclusive Colorado technology magnate who has invested in state-level races across the country in a bid to tip the balance on gay rights issues.
But only one of the pro-gay marriage candidates in the six most watched Senate primaries won. And while advocates hope to pick up more seats in the general election, it'll be tough to wrest control of half the chamber.
Races to watch include Pearson's bid to oust Moura and Democrat Catherine Cool Rumsey's challenge to Republican Senator Francis T. Maher.
After any election of consequence, there are two great fixations: first, the recriminations and second, the look ahead.
We'll begin with the recriminations. With Cicilline on track for a narrow victory, armchair strategists are already second-guessing Doherty's campaign.
Some suggest he should have gone on television with an above-the-fray, man-of-integrity advertising campaign during the nasty Democratic primary pitting Cicilline and businessman Anthony Gemma.
One glimpse at what might have been: a web-only ad featuring the state's first female trooper recalling how Doherty, then a young recruit, helped her get through the Rhode Island State Police Training Academy.
The critique at the root of this argument: Dohertyworld thinks everyone knows the former superintendent of state police and believes he's a good guy when, in fact, he is blank slate for many voters.
One political consultant I spoke with, who is not involved in the race, argues that Doherty's present attacks on Cicilline would make for a more effective contrast if he had established his own positives early on.
These pundits will all eat crow, of course, if Doherty's plan to hold his fire and take advantage of a cash-on-hand advantage over Cicilline in the critical final weeks of the campaign puts him over the top.
And even if he loses, there will be a consolation prize. Political watchers will instantly put Doherty in the upper tier of potential GOP candidates for governor in 2014. His executive experience, one could argue, would make him a more natural fit for the governor's office anyway.
If the polls are any indication, Republican Senate hopeful Barry Hinckley will lose to Senator Sheldon Whitehouse by a substantial margin. But his better-than-expected showing in a WPRI-TV debate has some talking about a future in GOP politics — whatever that means in Rhode Island.
David Scharfenberg can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @d_scharfenberg.