M. Charles Bakst, who retired in 2008 as The Providence Journal’s political columnist, watched a lot of Rhode Island elections during his four-decade career at Rhode Island’s newspaper of record. On Wednesday, I asked Bakst to weigh in with his thoughts on Tuesday night’s results. Here’s what he had to say:
I was a Cicilline supporter but even I was astonished by the size of his win, which was largely attributable to his zeal and ability to frame the issues as a choice between, in effect, good and evil, or “I’m fighting for you and he’s one of THEM.” Being a Democrat amid a Rhode Island Obama landslide was good planning!
Not to take anything away from Cicilline, but it also is evident that Doherty didn’t do himself any favors. Even though he had a year to work on it, he never mastered the art of skillfully and smoothly handling interviews and debates. He should have run more biographical ads early on to inoculate himself from Cicilline attacks that defined him. Most of all, he should have run ads that better outlined what he wanted to do in Washington and how he proposed to improve the lives of Rhode Islanders – and pounded home the idea that as a Republican in a GOP-controlled House he would be able to accomplish more than a Democrat.
I have no animosity toward Doherty and he was always nice to me. Despite Doherty’s campaign weaknesses, and despite my being a Cicilline backer, there were times when I actually thought Doherty would win or that Cicilline’s best hope for survival lay in the redistricting that made the contours of the district more favorable to him than they were last time around. I would bet you that many others in the Cicilline camp also were nervous.
If I were a functioning journalist, circulating on the front lines and to some extent behind the scenes, I likely would have had a truer understanding of what was happening. But all I had to go by were publicized polls that showed Cicilline in trouble – the last one showing him with only a 1-point lead and with heavy unfavorables and with the Cicilline campaign offering no specific figures to dispute the findings. And the national Republicans were pouring money into this Democratic district, which suggested that the GOP smelled victory. Plus The Providence Journal, which these days endorses Democrat after Democrat, endorsed Doherty, something that seemed sure to be an attention-getter.
Cicilline put himself in a hole with his 2010 comment about the “excellent” shape of Providence’s finances, an act for which he expressed contrition in 2012. But the larger moral of the story seems to be this: Campaigns, at least successful campaigns, are more about the future than the past, something Cicilline recognized and exploited brilliantly. The opponent Cicilline faced was not Perfection, it was Doherty, and Cicilline made voters appreciate that he, more than the Republican, was the guy they could count on to voice their concerns and protect their interests in Washington, and I congratulate him – indeed, I emailed him directly to congratulate him – for accomplishing such a knockout.
As for 2012 General Assembly results, I don’t know enough to comment in depth. It has been obvious for many, many years that the fewer Republicans in the legislature, the more difficulty the GOP has in recruiting good candidates, or candidates, period. Conversely, it also has long been obvious that the larger the Democratic caucuses are, the more unwieldy they become, with the ever-present prospect of factionalism within the party. Leaders don’t need me to tell them to beware of intra-party plotting.
Also, there is something to be learned from under-financed independent Mark Binder’s impressive, though unsuccessful, showing against Democratic House Speaker Gordon Fox. Leaders are by definition in high-profile positions and when they mess up, or voters think they are messing up, they can suddenly find themselves very vulnerable at the polls.