Loughlin, returning from Iraq, faces a tough challenge

Political Science Dept.
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  December 1, 2011

Lougjlin_main
FACING OFF Loughlin.

John J. Loughlin II — Army Reservist, former state representative, and all-but-official Republican candidate for Congress — is due back in Rhode Island late this month after a seven-month deployment in Iraq. And he'll encounter a political scene quite different from the one he left behind in May.

Back then his GOP rival Brendan Doherty, former superintendent of the state police, was a new entry to the field. And while it was clear he had potential — a good reputation, a large network of friends and admirers — it was not so clear how he would fare in the political sphere.

Meanwhile, the man Loughlin and Doherty hoped to replace — Providence-mayor-turned-Congressman David Cicilline — was at the low point of his generally charmed political career. Cicilline had sworn during his Congressional run that Providence was in "excellent fiscal condition." But post-election news of a $180 million structural deficit said otherwise — and the press and public were none too pleased.

Things have changed.

Cicilline remains vulnerable, no doubt. But he has mounted a quiet comeback, his poll numbers improving appreciably as Washington Republicans have alienated blue staters with their positions on Medicare and the budget.

And Doherty has proved a skilled fundraiser — building a lopsided $373,000 to $13,000 cash-on-hand edge over the largely dormant Loughlin campaign as of the latest campaign finance filings.

His opponents' gains — swifter and steeper than expected — will mean significant pressure on Loughlin to perform. And quickly. Job one: raise money. If Loughlin is to announce his presence in the GOP primary — and present himself as a credible challenger to Cicilline — he has to post a strong first quarter, observers say. Brown University political science professor Wendy Schiller puts the magic number at $150,000.

"You need external validation," she says. "You cannot just tell people [you're a viable candidate]."

Michael Napolitano, Loughlin's spokesman, says he is confident the candidate will produce. He points, first, to Loughlin's history — he raised $800,000 when he ran against Cicilline for Congress last year.

But the campaign's hopes for a strong showing in the money chase — and for a broader return to relevance — seem pinned, in no small measure, to Loughlin's personal charisma.

An occasional fill-in talk radio host, Loughlin is skilled in the arts of gladhanding and public speaking. Those talents were central to his strong showing against Cicilline last year. And supporters say they will serve him well against Doherty.

Doherty_main
FACING OFF Doherty.

Napolitano says he expects Loughlin to make quick work of Doherty in the debates. But the gift of gab should also help the candidate hold onto the support of GOP activists, who have a long history with Loughlin and look askance at Doherty's history of voting in Democratic primaries.

Indeed, that support shows few signs of buckling, even in the face of Doherty's impressive fundraising. "I know [Doherty's war chest] means he can probably beat David Cicilline more easily," says Mark Smiley, chairman of the Warren Republican Town Committee and president of an association of the party's city and town committees, "but it doesn't move me at all."

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  Topics: This Just In , Brendan Doherty, Rhode Island Republican Party, Michael Napolitano,  More more >
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