How Doherty Got Back in the Game

Republican Brendan Doherty's campaign has always maintained that his race against Congressman David Cicilline would be won and lost in October.

In October, he would spend his money. In October, he would roll out his big attacks.

When a pair of public polls conducted in late September and early October showed Cicilline up by six points - a 21-point swing since February, when the incumbent trailed Doherty by 15 - some observers suggested the October strategy was a mistake. 

Doherty, they argued, should have gone on television with positive, biographical ads during the divisive Democratic primary pitting Cicilline and businessman Anthony Gemma. And he should have launched his attacks on Cicilline immediately after the September 11 primary.

These observers may, in the end, be correct; if Doherty falls just short, there will be plenty to second guess. But the new WPRI-TV poll, which has Doherty pulling into a virtual tie with Cicilline, suggests they could be wrong.

Cicilline was the aggressor in the early stages of the campaign, attacking the GOP during his primary tilt and taking it to Doherty on Medicare and women's issues as soon as the general election began. By early October, acknowledges Ian Prior, Doherty's campaign manager, the Democrat had boxed Team Doherty into a corner.

Then on October 4, Doherty staged a press conference at Grundy's Gym in Central Falls. The gloves are off, he declared. Cicilline's attack on Doherty for his failure to support an expansion of the Violence Against Women Act was too much, he said, calling out Cicilline for his work as a lawyer, decades earlier, defending men convicted of violence against women.

The Cicilline camp ridiculed Doherty for staging a domestic violence event at a boxing gym. But the event, whatever its optics, marked a shift in the campaign. Doherty was going on offense.

The Republican had launched a TV ad just a few days before attacking Cicilline, the former mayor of Providence, for mishandling the capital city's budget and then declaring Providence in "excellent" fiscal condition during the 2010 Congressional campaign. And with polling suggesting his attack on Cicilline's record as a lawyer could work, he put it at the center of a second, hard-hitting ad launched October 20 (and later buttressed by a similar National Republican Congressional Committee ad).

It's hard to know which line of attack - the Providence finances or the lawyer attack - moved the numbers over the course of the month. But perhaps it was a combination of both.

After all, as Prior argues, there was something of a through line between them. The lawyer spot didn't just focus on Cicilline's defense of "rapists, pedophiles, and murderers." It said Cicilline, in his capacity as a state legislator, opposed mandatory sentences for "domestic violence offenders and child abusers." The implication, fair or not: Cicilline was a self-dealing pol back then, just as he was when he lied about Providence's finances to get elected.

To the extent that the two messages are different, there's an argument to be made that moving from one to the other - and tossing in an attack, yesterday, on Cicilline's response to the 2007 snowstorm that crippled Rhode Island - has kept Doherty on offense in the crucial closing weeks of the election.

Here lies the main advantage for a challenger. Cicilline's long record in office offers Doherty plenty of targets. He can move from one to another, keep things fresh, and - if he is skillful - build a unified narrative around his opponent's various missteps.

Cicilline doesn't have much of a Doherty record to pick apart. He's got one big argument that he's been pushing for months: Doherty is a Republican who will empower a radical GOP, even if he pledges to break with the party now and again. Cicilline is hoping that'll be enough to eke out a victory. And in a deep blue state, perhaps it will.

But one thing is clear: Doherty's October strategy, at a minimum, has put him within striking distance of a victory.

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