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After Bitter Defeats, State GOP Goes Soul-Searching

Wednesday, November 07, 2012


After a sorely disappointing night of stinging defeats across the board, the state GOP is taking stock of what went wrong and holding on to measured hopes that it can rebound in time for the next election.

Where the GOP goes from here isn’t exactly clear.

What is clear is that the election was a staggering loss for state Republicans. Not only did all three GOP Congressional candidates fall short, but also the state party’s small foothold in the General Assembly was even further eroded. In the state Senate, the GOP marked a net loss of three seats; in the House, it dropped by one seat as of late yesterday evening.

“As the core committed group primarily to the three federal candidates, they came in with enormous expectations,” said state GOP Chairman Mark Zaccaria, referring to the crowd of activists and campaign staff that packed the Providence Marriott last night. “They came in knowing full well that they had done everything that could have been done and hoping … that it was good enough. So obviously they were very disappointed. That should be no big surprise.”

“It’s a very disappointing night for me,” added former State Police Superintendent Brendan Doherty, who lost to incumbent David Cicilline in the First Congressional District by a wider margin than John Loughlin in 2010.

GOP Chairman: ‘We need to be better politicians’

Zaccaria said the party needs to focus on doing a better job of communicating with voters.

“In case anybody hasn’t been watching, the state of Rhode Island is out of money. That’s primarily because of bad management. But the bad managers are also expert politicians,” Zaccaria said. “They’re … better politicians than we are. That was proven tonight. The fact of the matter is that we have to learn to be better politicians or we’re never going to get the opportunity to prove that we’re better managers.”

Doherty largely agreed. “They need to be able to message a little better,” Doherty said in an interview. “It just comes down to messaging.”

But Doherty, who describes himself as a moderate Republican, hinted that the Rhode Island GOP may also be hindered by positions taken by the national party. “Divisiveness on the far right or the far left is just not where Rhode Island is,” he said. “We have people who are more in the center.”

Others blamed the party’s ills on straight-ticket voting. “There’s no doubt. There’s no doubt that had a huge impact,” said state Rep Doreen Costa, who won her race for re-election in North Kingstown.

She said the outcome would have been different had it not been a presidential election year.

“It’s a problem, but I don’t think it’s the crushing problem,” Zaccaria said. “The crushing problem is how to communicate against the messages that are driving the electorate today.”

Will Doherty and Hinckley run again?

While they didn’t win, both Brendan Doherty and GOP Senate challenger Barry Hinckley emerged from the election widely regarded as candidates who had a promising future in politics, should they choose to run again.

But neither seemed eager to do so last night, although they left open the door to that possibility.

“I’m not a career politician. I didn’t run to make a name for myself. I ran for a set of principles and values I wanted to bring to Rhode Islanders,” Doherty said in an interview. “To plan for running for some other office at this point would be disingenuous.”

Doherty said he would take the next few months to see what he “might do in the future.”

Hinckley, who faced Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, said there is no question that he will re-enter the private sector. Beyond that, he was uncertain about whether he would re-enter politics too. “I’m not planning my future tonight. I’ve got to get some rest and reflect before I plan my future,” Hinckley said. “Who knows what the future will bring.”

The third Republican Congressional candidate, Mike Riley, remained adamant that he will never run again.

Chairman says GOP has made progress

Obvious setbacks notwithstanding, Zaccaria said the state GOP had made progress in a number of key areas and he said Republicans will need to focus on expanding upon those improvements in the next few years. As one example, he pointed to enhanced fundraising efforts, which he said had enabled the state party to make direct cash contributions to General Assembly candidates for the first time in a number of years.

He also pointed to Cranston Mayor Allan Fung’s re-election in an uncontested race as one of the “bright spots” of the evening. Zaccaria said Cranston is an example of how a well-managed, pro-business Republican administration can work. (Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, a Republican, also won re-election.)

Zaccaria himself does not expect to be at the helm of the state party for its next go-around. His current term expires in March and he said he does not expect to be asked to run again nor is he bent on running again. “I haven’t thought about it but it is unlikely,” he said, noting that state party chairmen in Rhode Island traditionally are not long-serving.

What message did voters send?

As state Republicans mused about how to retool and refine their message, they also openly wondered—and worried—about what message Rhode Islander voters had sent about where they want to see the state go.

“I’m concerned that Rhode Islanders at the end of the day like the idea of more government and less business,” Hinckley said. He said that approach would only serve to further undermine the state’s financial health. Fewer businesses, he said, means the state will run out of money to pay for government.

Riley, who had challenged incumbent Democrat Jim Langevin in the Second Congressional District, delivered the most scathing remarks of the evening, pulling few punches in a brazenly honest speech. “We are a canary in the coal mine and we are headed right down the chute,” Riley said. “Rhode Island, you’re headed headlong into disaster. I’m not running again, so I can say this.”

“I don’t believe in this government,” Riley said, quickly adding: “I don’t believe in the structure of our current Rhode Island government.”

Riley also accused the state media of ignoring his campaign, calling out several journalists by name in his concession speech.

‘We’re going to continue to move on’

Ultimately, Republican responses to the results were mixed in with a measure of sheer disbelief.

Costa recalled her shock earlier in the evening upon learning that her state Senate colleague, Frank Maher, had been ousted from office. “When he sent me the text saying he lost … I thought he was bluffing,” she said.

“I don’t get it,” Costa added. “I don’t understand what happened, but we’re the Republican Party and we’re going to continue to move on.”

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