Whither Brendan Doherty?
So Brendan Doherty has left the state police and the word is that he is seriously considering a run for political office as a Republican. There are two shots for Doherty: taking on incumbent Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse for Senate or going after newly minted Congressman David Cicilline.
Whitehouse and Doherty have connections from Whitehouse’s tenure as attorney general and the two are known to have mutual respect. Not that such considerations necessarily trump political ambition; the Whitehouse and Lincoln Chafee families have ancient familial ties but that didn’t stop Whitehouse from running against Chafee in 2006.
Viewed from the prism of this moment, Cicilline looks more vulnerable than Whitehouse. Try as he may, Cicilline cannot escape some level of responsibility for the Providence financial meltdown. After all, he was mayor for 8 years and Angel Taveras has only been in City Hall for 60 days. And Whitehouse has a unified Democratic base, which may be problematic for Cicilline once the dust settles from fixing the city’s financial implosion. Doherty could battle Cicilline for some parts of organized labor, particularly public safety unions. And even Cicilline’s loyal East Side constituents may not be so pleased with him once they get their new property tax bills.
Whitehouse’s strength was on display last night at Mt. Hope High School in Bristol, where a crowd of almost 200 turned out for one of his community dinners. This one featured meatballs and pasta and drew a brace of local Democratic pols, including state Reps. Ray Gallison and Richard Morrison and Sens. Lou DiPalma and Wally Felag, as well as members of the Bristol Town Council.
The questions ranged all over the lot, from the federal deficit to defense spending and health care. Social security and Medicare were front and center as well. Whitehouse has gotten very good at handling questions at these events. He doesn’t speechify; he basically just takes questions from the audience and offers to speak privately with anyone who wants to question him after the dinner ends.
If Doherty runs, he would be smart to carve a moderate Republican reputation and shy from hard-core Tea Party views. (He already has the anti-immigration crowd behind him for his stand on the Carcieri executive order since rescinded by Gov. Chafee). One reason John Loughlin lost to Cicilline is that Loughlin appeared too far to the right for moderate voters in such communities as Bristol, East Providence, Jamestown, Warren, Newport and Pawtucket, places where former U.S. Rep. Ron Machtley, who cut a more moderate figure, ran well. Loughlin lost some suburban moderates with such stances as denying climate science and allowing himself to get bruised on the social security issue.
Doherty could be effective in cutting into Cicilline in such areas. And he is likely to be a more disciplined candidate than Loughlin. This isn’t to say that Doherty would be favored; one never knows with a first-time candidate how he/she will play on the campaign circuit. Plus, a credible campaign for 1st District House can be run for $1.3 to $1.5 million, while a Senate race against Whitehouse will cost at least $4 million and probably as much as $5 million.
Doherty has advantages. He has had a successful career in law enforcement and is the archetype of the straight-talking cop. He has a sense of humor and a stable, photogenic family. (He is married to Bishop Feehan high school sweetheart Michelle). He is a people person at home with business types or in sharing a pint at Aidan’s Pub in Bristol over the strains of Irish music on Sunday evenings.
Yet Doherty has never been on statewide television in a debate with political veterans such as Cicilline or Whitehouse. Doherty would have a learning curve on the wide range of issues that crop up in a congressional race.
And Doherty has close ties to some of the moderate Republicans who know how to win state elections in Rhode Island, such as former governor Lincoln Almond and Almond campaign guru John Holmes Jr., a former GOP state chairman.
One prime question is holding up the Republican parade to 2012: What does former Gov. Donald Carcieri do? If he decides to run for Senate, those considering a Senate race will probably look somewhere else to run. Ken McKay, the leading candidate for GOP state chairman, is close to Carcieri and reportedly would love him to run. Carcieri has some assets, particularly in name recognition and ability to raise money. And he has strong support among the Republican base and social-issue conservatives – the anti-immigrant, anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion crowd.
But 2012 may be a tough year for a Republican in Rhode Island. It will be a presidential year, which historically brings out a much larger (and more Democratic) turnout than an off-year campaign. And Whitehouse will not be the easy mark some Republicans think. Whitehouse will be well-financed and the national Democratic Party (and Sen. Jack Reed, RI’s most popular politician) will be working hard to get him re-elected.