Rhode Island isn’t exactly known for its squeaky clean politics. But Monday’s new WPRI 12 poll has made Cook Political Report senior editor Jennifer Duffy think this year’s 1st Congressional District race could be one for the history books – and not in a good way.
The poll shows Congressman David Cicilline 15 points behind Republican challenger Brendan Doherty. “I think this means if he’s going to win this race, he’s not going to win it pretty,” Duffy, a Rhode Island native, said of Cicilline. “It is going to be among the ugliest races Rhode Island has ever witnessed.”
And considering the state’s political history, “the bar’s pretty high there,” she added.
Cicilline’s allies think he can to close the gap and defeat Doherty by following the strategy employed by Sheldon Whitehouse to defeat then-Republican Lincoln Chafee in 2006 – basically, say that even if the former state police superintendent is a moderate himself, he’ll provide a key vote to empower congressional Republicans who’ve supported privatizing Medicare.
But Duffy isn’t sure that will be enough. “If that’s the strategy it might work, but I think it’s going to take a lot more than that,” she said. “I get this argument, and they’re counting on this obviously being a strong Democratic year, this being a strong year for the president. But I’m not sure so sure that that assumption is operative.”
Two numbers stuck out most to Duffy in Monday’s poll: Cicilline is losing to Doherty in union households by a 29-point margin and is only winning 54% of Democrats. That puts him in far worse shape than Whitehouse, who’s also on the ballot this year and is ahead by 36 points in union homes and winning 75% of Democrats.
“These are just not encouraging numbers for an incumbent in a district with a 15-point Democratic advantage,” Duffy said. “That union test ballot really just reinforces my belief that right now Cicilline is just tagged with every Providence problem.” Headlines about Providence filing for bankruptcy likely haven’t helped Cicilline, either, she said.
Duffy said she has “no idea” what the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee makes of Cicilline’s numbers, which could imperil the party’s chances of gaining 25 seats in November to win back control of the U.S. House.
“I know that these parties work very hard to protect their incumbents,” Duffy said. “They stay with their incumbents. But they’re also realistic, and if somebody starts looking like they’re on life support I think a couple of things could happen.”
A spokesman for the DCCC, Josh Schwerin, said in an email: “We are a member participation organization whose first priority is incumbents. Congressman Cicilline is fighting to create jobs in Rhode Island and voters will recognize his hard work in November.”
First, Duffy said, Democrats have until the June filing deadline to find a new candidate in the 1st District other than outsider Anthony Gemma. But echoing many Rhode Island Democrats, she said it’s unclear whom the party’s savior would be. (Cumberland Mayor Dan McKee’s name was being widely floated Tuesday.)
Second, Duffy said, “I’ll be interested to see if they start throwing stuff at Doherty to see if they can perhaps move these numbers a little bit and feel better about things, and then they’ll reassess.”
• Related: Doherty among best-funded Republican challengers in the US (Feb. 13)