How Cicilline won

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  November 7, 2012

On October 4 Doherty, staged a press conference at a gritty Central Falls boxing gym he'd frequented as a young man. The gloves were off, he said, hammering Cicilline for his work as a lawyer, many years ago, defending men convicted of violence against women.

Two weeks later, the Doherty camp put up a blistering attack ad hitting Cicilline for defending "rapists, pedophiles, and murderers" as a lawyer, even as he voted against mandatory sentences for "domestic violence offenders and child abusers" as a state legislator. The implication, fair or not: Cicilline was a self-dealing pol back then, just as he would be when he lied about the state of Providence's finances.

Prior later told me that the Central Falls press conference felt like a turning point. And in the closing days of the campaign, WPRI-TV released a new poll showing Cicilline clinging to a one-point lead.

With the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) on television with an even more brutal assault on Cicilline's work as a lawyer, the race seemed winnable once again.

So what went wrong?


The armchair pundits have plenty of theories about Doherty's big-picture failings. One popular argument: Doherty should have gone up with positive, above-the-fray TV spots in September, while Cicilline was engaged in a nasty Democratic primary fight with businessman Anthony Gemma.

The critique here: Dohertyworld thought voters knew and liked Doherty, a former superintendent of state police with a reputation for integrity, when in fact he was a blank slate for many.

There may be something to that. I'd offer an adjunct: while Cicilline targeted specific demographics, especially women, Doherty didn't play the sort of identity politics that might have meshed well with his biography. A direct appeal to Catholics, perhaps. A more explicit identification with the suburbanites he'd have to win in big numbers if he hoped to overcome Cicilline's urban strength.

But whatever the broader flaws in his approach, all the public and private polls suggested a very tight race headed into the final weeks of the campaign.

Something, it would appear, shifted at the end.

Hyers, of the Cicilline campaign, argues that the Republicans' closing attacks on the Democrat's work as a lawyer — particularly the NRCC spot may have backfired. It may have been too nasty. But Prior, of the Doherty campaign, rejects that argument. "Negative advertising works," he says.

In the end, Prior argues, the Republican at the top of the ticket proved too much of a drag. Mitt Romney peaked three weeks before the election, he says, giving Doherty a temporary boost in the polls that simply would not last.

By election day, he argues, a deflated GOP brand was too much of a problem for Doherty and other moderate, Northeastern Republicans like Senator Scott Brown and Congressional candidate Richard Tisei, both of Massachusetts.

Hyers is quick to acknowledge the influence of the presidential race. But he also credits Rhode Island Democrats' superior get out the vote operation. In the final 96 hours of the campaign, he says, Cicilline and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse's combined political shop knocked on 150,000 doors in the Congressman's district.

And between 5 and 7 am on Election Day, Democrats put door hangers emblazoned with polling-place information on the knobs of 29,000 targeted voters — Democrats who had shown up at the polls only sporadically in the past and might need a nudge.

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