It's been a brutal couple of months for Providence mayor-turned-freshman Congressman David Cicilline.
His successor in City Hall, Mayor Angel Taveras, has laid bare the $180 million structural deficit he left behind. Critics have accused Cicilline of covering up the mess as he ran for Congress.
And the Congressman's polling numbers are downright Nixonian: just 17 percent of voters in a Brown University survey last month said he was doing a "good" or "excellent" job.
The ruinous start has rivals in both parties giddy about the next election. "He's dead and doesn't know it," crows Ken McKay, the bright, bomb-throwing chairman of the Rhode Island Republican Party.
But if the present controversy seems destined to inflict serious, long-term damage on Cicilline — the voters feel lied to, as the Congressman's critics remind us at every opportunity — reports of his death are greatly exaggerated.
Indeed, a close look at the political landscape suggests he's going to be quite difficult to beat next year.
TIME IS ON HIS SIDE
The central question of Cicilline's re-election campaign is this: does the Providence budget story have legs?
At the moment, it's hard to imagine it doesn't. The Providence Journal is hammering Cicilline with evident glee. And as many observers note, the capital city's budget woes will take time to remedy.
Moreover, with Washington engaged in a big fight over government spending that seems destined to define the 2012 election, Cicilline's opponents will be able to make a natural link between the local and national storylines.
But time is on Cicilline's side. There are 17 months until the Democratic primary and 19 months until the general election. The heat of the budget story will inevitably dissipate. And some of it, no doubt, will shift to Mayor Taveras as he moves to shutter schools and make other painful cuts.
If Taveras's poll numbers wilt as a result, he may be tempted to point the finger at his predecessor, just as Cicilline has — time and time again — with his City Hall predecessor, Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci.
But for now, Taveras has gone out of his way to avoid direct criticism; the mayor, after all, has to work with the state's Congressional delegation.
Still, if Taveras's forbearance and the passage of time work to blunt the long-term impact of the budget story, the bullseye will almost certainly remain on Cicilline's back. Not pleasant, to be sure. But not all bad, either.
If Cicilline's vulnerability draws multiple candidates to the Democratic primary, they could easily split the anti-incumbent vote and deliver him a victory. We've seen it before: Cicilline won the Congressional primary last fall in similar fashion.
His weakness could also mean several Republicans will vie for their party's nomination next year — former State Representative John J. Loughlin II, who was the Republican nominee last time, and Colonel Brendan Doherty, the state's former top cop, being the leading names at the moment. And a GOP primary would nick up the eventual nominee and burn through precious cash for a local party that struggles to raise money.
In the wake of Lincoln Chafee's successful independent run for governor, even the general election field could be crowded. It's not too hard to imagine a self-financed candidate like Anthony Gemma, a businessman who lost in the Democratic primary last time, skipping the first round altogether and taking his shot in November.