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Cicilline’s Unpopularity Sparks 2012 Primary Talk

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He may be among the most unpopular freshmen in the nation, but Rep. David Cicilline will run for a second term next fall in deep-blue Rhode Island with the firm backing of the Ocean State’s Democratic machine.

Already a broad coalition of key state legislators, municipal officials and Congressional allies have gathered behind the former Providence mayor, who has struggled under a rash of negative news about his handling of the capital city’s finances.

Just don’t expect Anthony Gemma to join the coalition.

The businessman who finished second in last fall’s Democratic primary hasn’t made his 2012 plans official, but he told Roll Call that he’s “very strongly considering” a rematch.

“My opinion straight up is that David Cicilline is unelectable next election cycle,” Gemma said in an interview. “If he does somehow get past the Democratic primary, the seat would be lost to Republicans.”

Gemma, an attorney perhaps best known for his family’s plumbing business, spent nearly $280,000 from his own pocket in the last election and is prepared to spend again. While he is often laughed off as an inexperienced outsider in Democratic circles, Gemma’s presence in a race that will include two relatively well-known Republicans certainly won’t help Cicilline.

“I think I’m the candidate best suited to win,” Gemma said. “What’s nice now is that I have a pretty significant base that I’m working from. I believe that I appeal to Democrats, I appeal to independents and I appeal to people from all political spectrums, even Republicans.”

Not that he’ll need to appeal to the GOP given the 1st district is among the most Democratic in the country. The GOP knows it’ll need help to win a district currently rated a D+13 on the Cook Partisan Voting Index.

For perspective, this would be the most Democratic district in the nation held by a Republican if either GOP candidate — John Loughlin, the unsuccessful 2010 GOP nominee, or Brendan Doherty, the former head of the state police — was able to win. No Republican holds a seat rated higher than a D+6, according to the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Not that flukes don’t happen.

Republican Anh “Joseph” Cao won a D+25 district in 2008, ousting the ethically tarnished Rep. William Jefferson (D) in New Orleans. But that victory was short-lived, with a Democrat winning back the district in 2010.

And Democrat Nick Lampson won Texas’ 22nd, an R+13 district, after former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay stepped down and Republicans were forced to run a write-in campaign for their candidate.

Cicilline’s office referred political questions to state Democratic Party Chairman Edwin Pacheco.

“Obviously we hope there isn’t a primary,” Pacheco said when asked about Gemma’s potential effect on the race. “If there is, what I can say is that we worked very hard on behalf of David Cicilline in 2010 and the Democratic Party will continue to do that in the 2012 election.”

Indeed, Cicilline is expected to have a strong fundraising quarter, in part because of two fundraisers in recent weeks hosted by prominent Rhode Island Democrats. The first, held last month in Providence, was hosted by the Ocean State’s entire Congressional delegation, in addition to the state Senate president and state Speaker. This month, the delegation hosted a separate Capitol Hill event for the Congressman.

“Democrats stand in support of David Cicilline,” Pacheco said.

But the voters of Rhode Island aren’t necessarily ready to support Cicilline, who replaced the often-ridiculed but beloved former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D).

Just 17 percent of voters statewide approved of Cicilline’s job performance in March, near the peak of negative press reports about massive budget deficits that Cicilline left behind in Providence. Deficits are not uncommon in state and local governments, but Cicilline set himself up by characterizing the city’s finances as “excellent” during a debate last fall.

In a mid-May survey by Fleming & Associates, 23 percent of respondents gave the Congressman an excellent or good rating, while 63 percent gave him fair or poor marks. More alarming, perhaps, were prospective head-to-head matchups showing Cicilline trailing prospective Republican candidates Loughlin and Doherty.

Republicans may be optimistic locally, but from Washington, D.C., they see Rhode Island’s 1st district as a long shot that “could become competitive if the right pieces fall into place,” according to one GOP campaign staffer.

Gemma is one of those pieces. Conservatives hope Gemma sufficiently bloodies Cicilline in the state’s late primary, giving him little time to recover for a general election.

Cicilline beat Loughlin by just 6 points last fall. And the NRCC is paying some attention to the district, helping the state GOP improve microtargeting efforts and voter contact lists.

“Rep. David Cicilline’s transition from mayor of Providence to a Washington politician has been seamless,” NRCC spokesman Tory Mazzola said. “He left the city’s finances in chaos after misleading officials about the looming fiscal disaster.”

Gemma said he has learned a thing or two from his first run.

He would get in earlier this time, having entered the race last cycle less than three months before the primary, where he earned almost a quarter of the vote in a four-way contest. Gemma doesn’t want to give a timeline for his decision, but he said he has already met with his political team to “look into the 2012 cycle.”

“It doesn’t bother me, challenging a Democrat,” he said. “People know I’m for real now. They know I’m viable.”

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