PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - Congressman David Cicilline would lose to his Republican opponent by more than 10 points if an election were held today, according to an exclusive WPRI 12 poll that finds many voters are unhappy with the first-term Democrat.
The new survey of 300 registered voters in Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District shows Cicilline's 2010 opponent, former state Rep. John Loughlin, would defeat him 47 percent to 35 percent, with 17 percent undecided.
Another Republican, former State Police Col. Brendan Doherty, would beat Cicilline 46 percent to 33 percent, with 20 percent undecided, the poll reveals.
"If I'm David Cicilline I have a great deal of concern about my re-election at this time," Eyewitness News political analyst Joe Fleming said. But "in politics, 17 months is a really long time – things can change greatly."
- Related: Complete poll results
The telephone poll was conducted last Friday through Sunday by Fleming & Associates of Cumberland, R.I. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus approximately 5.7 percentage points.
The new results mark a steep slide in Cicilline's support since last November, when he defeated Loughlin by 51 percent to 46 percent in the hard-fought race to succeed former Congressman Patrick Kennedy.
"At this point, it looks like the voters of Rhode Island are upset with David Cicilline more than voting for Brendan Doherty or John Loughlin," Fleming said. "So I think this is an anti-Cicilline vote at this time."
Cicilline 'not surprised' by numbers
The poll shows 57 percent of registered voters in the 1st District have a negative opinion of Cicilline, while 33 percent have a positive one and 10 percent don't know.
Cicilline said he was "not surprised" by his poor showing in the survey, suggesting it reflects weeks of bad headlines stemming from Providence's financial crisis, as opposed to an early judgment on his tenure in the House of Representatives.
"I don't think there is any question this poll reflects a response to the coverage that has occurred over the past several months about the Providence budget," the congressman said. "I don't think it reflects my work in Congress."
Cicilline said he will spend the next 17 months "working hard every single day to earn the trust of residents of my district" by pushing for an end to the war in Afghanistan and resisting changes to Social Security or Medicare.
Far more voters have formed an opinion about Cicilline than his two Republican challengers.
The poll shows 46 percent don't know how they feel about Loughlin and 52 percent don't know how they feel about Doherty. Among those who do, Loughlin scored a 15 percent negative rating compared with 5 percent for Doherty.
Military rules bar Loughlin from commenting as he prepares to deploy to Iraq with the U.S. Army Reserve, but spokesman Mike Napolitano said he was "very pleased to see those numbers."
"I think it's got a lot do with Providence," Napolitano said of Cicilline's poll showing. "He's trying to launch a counteroffensive … and he can't get away from that, and that's going to follow him into this race."
Napolitano also said Loughlin "is looking forward to coming back and watching a spirited campaign."
Doherty, who announced his candidacy last week, said he was gratified to be on top in the poll, but emphasized that it's still early considering voters will not go to the polls until nearly a year and a half from now.
"This is the first inning, if you will, of a baseball game," he said. "It's nice to be up by a couple runs, but I wouldn't stop there – we're going to build a very, very strong campaign, and I've got some great people with me."
Doherty said he will spend the coming months introducing himself to voters and building his campaign war chest. And if he and Loughlin have to fight a primary first to win the Republican nomination, Doherty said, "So be it."
Napolitano said a primary could help the Republicans by allowing them to get their message out earlier in the political season.
Cicilline 'abandoned' by seniors
The poll shows Cicilline has lost considerable ground among voters ages 60 and older, a group that was key to his victory last fall. More than half of them said they would vote for Loughlin or Doherty if the election were held today.
Senior citizens seem to have "abandoned" Cicilline, Fleming said. "However, this is a group I believe he can still get back," likely by emphasizing his support for continuing Medicare and Social Security in their traditional forms.
Fleming said he wasn't surprised that so many voters had no opinion about Doherty or Loughlin since the poll questions did not reference their previous roles as state police leader and Cicilline's 2010 opponent, respectively.
Only about 14 percent of independent voters said they would vote for Cicilline, but he continues to run strongly among self-identified Democrats, winning 60 percent of the party's electorate.
However, Fleming noted Cicilline's support among Democrats was down from 79 percent in a WPRI 12 poll last October. "He has lost a little ground there, so that has hurt him some," he said.
Doherty remains "a blank slate" for voters, Fleming said, and his political viability will depend on the positions he takes on issues and how strong a campaign he is able to run. "I think you're going to see Brendan Doherty portray himself as a tough guy – law enforcement, honesty, integrity – somebody that you can trust," he said.
Fleming also said that while he "wouldn't be surprised" if a Democratic primary opponent steps forward to run against Cicilline, his liberal base and support among most party leaders should help the congressman stave off a challenger.
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