UPDATED: Cicilline, Doherty, and the fraught play for women's votes

Women voters may very well determine the outcome of the race pitting Congressman David Cicilline against Republican challenger Brendan Doherty.

Indeed, Cicilline's six-point edge on Doherty in a recent WPRI-TV poll is powered by his 13-point advantage among female voters. And Doherty's camp appears hyper-aware of its need to cut into the incumbent's margin.

Doherty recently hosted a high-profile "Women for Doherty" event. And yesterday, at a press conference at a boxing gym, Doherty spoke of his work, as a state trooper, protecting victims of domestic violence. He also blasted Cicilline for representing men accused of brutal crimes against women in his days as a practicing attorney.

The press conference came after Cicilline attacked Doherty for opposing an expansion of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to include Native Americans, immigrants, and members of the LGBT community.

The back-and-forth over VAWA is, perhaps, the most revealing - and fraught - exchange of the entire campaign. Let me explain:

  • It underscores Cicilline's early success in playing offense - in setting the terms of the debate. He spent much of his Democratic primary battle with businessman Anthony Gemma raising alarms about the national GOP agenda. And immediately afterward, he launched an ad titled "Their Man" attempting to pin Doherty to that agenda. The VAWA attack furthers this larger attack, with the additional advantage of playing to Cicilline's most important constituency: women.
  • Doherty has done a pretty good job responding to Cicilline's attacks. He has vigorously defended his moderate bona fides, saying all the right things about reaching across the aisle to find bi-partisan solutions. And his attacks on Cicilline's work as a lawyer was forceful and effective in its own way. But as long as he's parrying Cicilline's attacks, he's campaigning on the Democrat's terms. He's fighting battles that are difficult for him to win.
  • Of course, Cicilline has some structural advantages that can't be overlooked: he had a Democratic primary spotlight that Doherty did not; the Rhode Island electorate is more sympathetic to Democratic than Republican positions; and there is a GOP "war on women" to exploit. Doherty had to play some defense - and it's not entirely fair to criticize him for being on the defensive. But his press conference on VAWA and domestic violence, if well-executed, was a risky play: it raised the profile of a bill - and a specific Cicilline attack - that may not have lingered in the public imagination all that long otherwise.  
  • Interesting twist, though: the Doherty camp says it opposes the extension of VAWA because it could mean federal dollars protecting the male-to-female transgendered (Doherty campaign manager Ian Prior adds that the Victims of Crime Act, which offers victims basic rights like protection from the accused, applies to the transgendered). Democrats have hit back with a statement from the party's LGBTQ Caucus. If this fight gets bigger and bigger - and it may not - one wonders if it could surface the electorate's latent feelings about Cicilline's homosexuality. That may have been a problem for the incumbent at one point. But as recent, local polling showing strong support for gay marriage suggests, it might actually be a positive now.

Doherty's task, it seems, is to send signals to women voters that he is an acceptable choice, without allowing women's issues - rather than his attack on Cicilline's stewardship of Providence's finances as mayor - to become the defining issue of the campaign.

If his press conference doesn't spawn a mushrooming battle over women's issues, it could help his cause. If it does, he could be in trouble.

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