Saying U.S. Representative David Cicilline is vulnerable isn’t news, it’s akin to saying the sky is blue. But despite his flagging popularity, it will be difficult for a known-quantity challenger to knock him off in the primary. It seems likely that Anthony Gemma will be that challenger, having all-but made the announcement. David Segal seems unlikely to attempt to challenge Cicilline again and Bill Lynch’s last-place showing two years ago puts him out of the running, as Mr. Lynch never managed to define himself as much more than a member of the Democratic Party. Two years ago, every candidate facing Mr. Cicilline attempted to position themselves as the anti-Cicilline, with none besides John Loughlin succeeding (who was only the anti-Cicilline by default).
That struggle to make oneself appear to be the true opposition led to a split primary where Mr. Cicilline never managed to pull in even 50% of the vote in any one particular locale, yet still managed to win pluralities in most of the parts of US Congressional District 1. The typical view is that any three-way or larger race will likewise favor Mr. Cicilline again, as candidates attempt to define themselves as the anti-Cicilline and never hit it off with the primary voters. But I think this view is flawed.
Counterintuitively, I believe that a three-way race between Messrs. Cicilline, Gemma, and Segal opens the door somewhat to a close primary where Mr. Cicilline could be defeated by either of his opponents, though I’d lean towards this scenario favoring Mr. Gemma due to resource reasons. Although, perhaps whatever polling Connection Strategies is up to might be more illuminating. Regardless, it might perhaps help if I show you a handily-made map with the percentages each candidate won the last time everyone went head-to-head.
If you’re looking at the map, you’ll notice just how much of a turf-war the 2010 Democratic primary was for the non-Cicilline candidates. Mr. Gemma was strongest in the north, while Mr. Segal was strongest in the south and Providence. Mr. Lynch did best in Pawtucket and East Providence, but his inability to carry Pawtucket proves his poor popularity. Likewise, he was far behind in Providence, which is the key to any Democratic primary. Much of Rhode Island can be sacrificed if one has a large presence in Providence, but that was where Mr. Lynch was weakest. With more voters from Providence now in CD1, the capital city’s importance is even greater in 2012.
Mr. Lynch’s voters are free. My view is that Mr. Lynch was much like Mr. Cicilline in terms of where they lie on the political spectrum; solid Democrats. Perhaps Mr. Lynch stood slightly to the right of Mr. Cicilline, but that’s mere conjecture. Therefore, I’d expect Mr. Lynch’s voters to behave much like Mr. Cicilline’s; with the one caveat that they didn’t vote for Mr. Cicilline the first time, so they’re more likely to vote for an opposition candidate. Mr. Cicilline’s voters may be having buyer’s remorse, and may be shopping around for a new candidate.
The importance is with Mr. Segal’s voters. Mr. Segal, a former Green Party City Councilman turned Democratic State Representative from Providence is perhaps best described as hailing from Howard Dean’s “Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party”, a.k.a., the left. Mr. Segal’s voters are most likely to have voted for him because they enjoyed his positions; liberal on social issues, interventionist on economic issues, and green. The thing is that all of these issues won’t favor Mr. Gemma; they’ll favor Mr. Cicilline. If Mr. Segal declines to run, Mr. Gemma should follow suit.
Mr. Gemma ran to the right of Mr. Cicilline. His voters came mostly from the northern part of the state, and seem likely to have voted for Mr. Gemma based on his issues as well. Government reform, more conservative social issues, and his business background. If Mr. Gemma calls off his run, it would go hard on Mr. Segal were he to run. Both potential challengers draw voters away from Cicilline. Their bases of support do not overlap. Indeed, one might say that their voters might well vote for Cicilline first. This is not to say that they are at odds, but that both Mr. Gemma and Mr. Segal represent two different wings of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, the right and left wings. Both are also further handicapped by the fact that both have lost races, a bad thing for politicians not named Abraham Lincoln (although I’m sure he didn’t feel great about it at the time).
So, what are our possible scenarios for a primary challenge?
1 Gemma Harder: Mr. Gemma runs alone against Mr. Cicilline. Mr. Gemma runs on many of the same themes that he used last time, attempting to hammer Mr. Cicilline with the state of affairs in Providence. No matter what happens in Providence, Mr. Cicilline is buoyed by former Segal and Lynch voters who don’t wish to see Mr. Gemma in the U.S. House. Outspent and outvoted, Mr. Gemma is defeated handily.
2 Cicilline Erodes: Mr. Cicilline’s support is far weaker than anyone anticipated. Nothing goes Mr. Cicilline’s way, and the gobs of cash are unable to make any difference in a state where everyone already has an opinion about him. Bad news out of Providence puts the nail in his coffin and voters abandon him. Segal and many of Mr. Cicilline’s own voters stay home, disappointed with the options in the primary. Anthony Gemma faces Brendan Doherty in the general.
3 A Centered Opposition: Either Mr. Gemma or Mr. Segal runs and essentially puts their policy positions straight down the line with Mr. Cicilline’s. This would favor Mr. Gemma the most. Able to attract voters otherwise disinclined to vote for them, they still don’t manage to pull in enough to outdo Mr. Cicilline’s advantages. Once again, someone reacquaints themselves with defeat.
4 Splitting Cicilline: Mr. Gemma and Mr. Segal run, holding off attacks on one another to focus on a relentless war against Mr. Cicilline with their own positive messages as well. Helped by Mr. Doherty’s sniping at Mr. Cicilline, one side emerges victorious after catching fire with the voters and cleaving former Lynch voters and Mr. Cicilline’s supporters apart. Either David Segal or Anthony Gemma find Mr. Doherty waiting in the general election.
5 Cicilline Divides and Conquers: Mr. Gemma and Mr. Segal run, but their campaigns are much like in 2010. No one is able to successfully establish themselves as the anti-Cicilline and the media projects an air of invincibility onto Mr. Cicilline. Many of Mr. Segal’s voters make the decision that they’d rather have Mr. Cicilline than Mr. Gemma and vote for the incumbent, meaning Mr. Segal loses votes from 2010. Mr. Gemma’s unfocused campaign doesn’t inspire the necessary confidence, and Mr. Cicilline wins with a strong plurality.
I think given these five scenarios, it seems likely that Mr. Cicilline is going to face Mr. Doherty in November. If you’re reading the scenarios, you might think I think it’s 3-2 in favor of Mr. Cicilline; I’d say it’s in fact likely to be much better odds for Mr. Cicilline than that. In order of likely to least likely, I’d say the scenarios go: 1, 5, 4, 2, 3. It’s a dismal prospect for Democrats; Mr. Cicilline seems beatable in the general election, but he’s just not beatable enough in the primary to replace him. Of course, removing incumbency advantage is its own trouble. But any Democrat should be assisted by the higher turnout accompanying a presidential election.
For more on the general election match-up, Brian Hull has given it his own analysis.