Cromwell: How a Republican wins Rhode Island’s 1st District

By Cara Cromwell

Are you waiting for the punch line?

When Ted called me about writing a guest post for his blog and he suggested this topic, my response was: “If I knew, I wouldn’t be writing this, Ted.” (Cue nervous laughter.)

Jokes aside, after managing John Loughlin’s campaign during the exciting and competitive 2010 cycle – and having almost recovered from the experience – I have a few observations to share on how a Republican candidate can mount a competitive campaign in RI-1. I’m not so addled as to think I have the keys to the kingdom, but here are my scraps of wisdom (strong word) for any current or future candidates that are thinking about embarking on the quest for the grail that is RI-1.

While there are currently two GOP candidates who plan to run for the seat in 2012, the first thing to note is that we are almost a year away from the filing deadline and it is far too early to assume that the field is in place. With Congressman Cicilline appearing weak, additional candidates on both sides of the aisle may emerge and others may drop out. A quick check of Anthony Gemma’s Facebook page seems to indicate that he’s still in the hunt. This race is fluid.

So whether you’re undeclared, in a foreign land or “in it to win it,” the vast stretch of time between now and when the race heats up next spring should be about getting your campaign up and running and perfecting your “why I should be your next member of Congress” stump speech. Know the issues, but articulate a larger vision. There’s no point in spending a lot of time sparring with a sitting member of Congress – we have talk radio for that. You need to define yourself and your priorities and not look around at the rest of the field right now.

Most importantly, you need to focus on raising money. And right after that, you need to raise money. Oh, and then you need to raise money. And when you’re not raising money, you should make sure that you’re familiar with the key issues before Congress.* Then go raise more money.

How much? The answer is easy – $1 million is a good goal for a competitive seat. It’s the equation that’s hard to solve.

Rhode Island has one media market, and it’s on the lower end of expensive for television airtime. We’re a cheap date compared to most other seats but because the district has been so reliably Democratic, “D.C. money” is less likely to find its way here. D.C. money includes not only contributions from the National Republican Campaign Committee, but the many political action committees that tend to give to GOP candidates.

Their logic is sound: Why spend the money in RI-1 – which, with the exception of Ron Machtley’s six years, has been a safe Democratic seat since the 1930s – when there are 82 freshman House Republicans to protect in 2012? The other complicating factor is that D.C. money doesn’t appear in a hotly contested GOP primary at all, so whatever you plan to spend in the primary, plan to do it with money you have or money you have raised locally. And while Rhode Island Republicans are generous, there just aren’t very many of them, and this is where the real challenge lies.

It’s a tough pill to swallow, but an election is a numbers game, not a popularity contest. During the course of a campaign, you might meet 1,000 people a day who say they’re going to vote for you (most will live in RI-2 or nearby Connecticut). But unless you can crack the code on getting the so-called unaffiliated voters to vote for a Republican, you’re right where you started – not in Congress.

In 2010, RI-1 was rated a D +13 district, meaning that statistically the Democrat should beat the Republican candidate by a margin of 13 points. Although the margin was about half that in 2010, the simple truth is that whoever the GOP candidate is in 2012, he or she is going to have to find many more votes than the 10,000 or so by which Loughlin lost. With President Obama up in 2012, voter turnout will be higher than 2012 – and those voters aren’t voting GOP.

Where will those votes come from? In 2010, Cicilline’s margin of 10,000 included about 7,500 from Providence. Without a significant (read: expensive) turnout effort, the 2012 candidate will face the same numbers challenge that Loughlin did: despite winning in the outlying communities, huge losses in the urban areas put him under.

I’m not a “mathemagician” so I don’t have a solution to this one other than to say that making significant inroads in the cities will be crucial unless you can get 5,000 or 6,000 people to move from Providence to Portsmouth and vote GOP. There are also the unknowns – whether voters will blame Cicilline for Providence’s fiscal demise and whether a bloody Democratic primary will leave those voters divided and unhappy enough to stay home in November. If Obama is cruising to re-election, his followers may be complacent, creating an opportunity of “hope and change” for the GOP candidates in Rhode Island.

* And by the way, the rare exception to “don’t look at the rest of the field” is that you should know what’s happening on the Hill and use your mental file cabinet (and well as hard copy) to understand the issues and know where Congressman Cicilline stands. You can bet that he’ll say he is “protecting seniors and working families.” Maybe you should too? Feel free to anticipate what he will say are his accomplishments and work on your responses.

But only do that in your head, while you’re raising money.

Cara Cromwell is a political consultant who lives in Bristol.

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