Between the visits by Mitt and Hillary and the national attention focused on Buddy, many Rhode Islanders might not realize that both of our U.S. House representatives are seeking reelection.
As the governor's race and the Providence mayoral race devour the political oxygen, Democratic U.S. Rep. David N. Cicilline is facing a challenge from Republican Cormick B. Lynch in the 1st Congressional District. And Democratic U.S. Rep. James R. Langevin is facing a challenge by Republican Rhue R. Reis in the 2nd Congressional District.
Both incumbents enjoy big cash advantages against underfunded underdogs. And suffice it to say I didn't spot MSNBC's Chris Matthews or other national media when Cicilline and Lynch debated last week at Laurelmead, a retirement community on Providence's East Side. About 40 people attended.
But afterward, Lynch, a 29-year-old former Marine who served in Iraq and lives in Newport, challenged Cicilline, a 53-year-old former Providence mayor who has been in Congress since 2011, to take part in more debates.
"Does he owe me a debate? No," Lynch said. "But does he owe the voters of Rhode Island a debate? Absolutely - especially since no Congress has been paid more to do less in the last 40 years."
Cicilline campaign spokeswoman Liz White said, "The congressman made it clear when [Lynch] tweeted about this that he is happy to debate him, and we've been invited and will participate in an additional debate that will be announced soon."
From my perspective: The more debates, the better. But even if they debated every day, how is Lynch - a first-time candidate who reported $7,098 on the latest campaign finance form - going to compete against Cicilline, who reported $553,335? (I mean, $7,098 might not be enough to run for state legislature, never mind Congress.)
Lynch said he now has about $15,000 on hand, and he noted that another underfunded underdog, Matthew J. Fecteau, received 37 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary against Cicilline.
So Lynch might be able to harness anybody-but-Cicilline sentiment. But how can he succeed when former state police Supt. Brendan P. Doherty - a Republican who enjoyed solid name recognition and solid financing - lost to Cicilline by 12 percentage points in 2012?
"That's apples and oranges," Lynch said, noting that 2012 was a presidential election year and that independent candidate David S. Vogel took 6 percent of the vote in the congressional race. "Cicilline won on Obama's coattails. Now it's not a presidential election year, and it's just my name and his name on the ballot."
Still, the Washington-based Cook Political Report rates this race as a "solid D," noting that the district is 15 points more Democratic than the nation as a whole, based on presidential voting.
"Republicans made a huge run at Cicilline in 2012 and came up short," said the Cook Political Report's house editor, David Wasserman. "There's no presidential race this year, but there is a governor's race that will drive Democratic voters to the polls." He said Fecteau's 37 percent shows some Democrats "don't have a fondness for David Cicilline," but he said he's "not convinced" they'll now vote for a Republican.
During last week's debate, Laurelmead executive director/moderator Craig Evans began by zeroing in on a weakness of each candidate.
Evans said none of 30 or so bills sponsored by Cicilline has become law under the Republican House majority, although some of his proposed amendments have been signed into law. So with the GOP likely to hold on to control of the House, he asked, "wouldn't Rhode Island be better served by having one new Republican congressman instead of two experienced Democrats?"
"Unequivocally no," Cicilline replied. He said budgets reflect party priorities, and a budget proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., would cut taxes for the rich, reduce spending on Pell Grants, maintain big subsidies for big oil and "end the guarantee of Medicare and turn it into a voucher that doesn't keep pace with the increased cost of health care."
By contrast, Democrats want to raise the minimum wage, pass "comprehensive immigration reform" and ensure "equal pay for equal work for women," Cicilline said. But House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, won't bring those bills to the floor, he said.
"So I would disagree strongly that we would benefit by having one more Republican," Cicilline said. "I think we would benefit by having 17 more Democrats," he added, citing the unlikely scenario that would let Democrats take back the House majority.
Next, Evans posed a question to Lynch, noting he has never been elected before. "Right out of the gate, you want to be our congressman. That's a big deal," he said. "Are you ready for hte job? We've got four years invested in our current congressman. Why should we give that up?"
"Because it's about results - not rhetoric," Lynch replied. "We do have four years with our current congressman, and if you want to go around another trip of the merry-go-round, be my guest. But we have all been on it long enough to know what is coming around the next corner."
He noted, for example, that Rhode Island has had the nation's third-highest unemployment rate, and he held up a Providence Journal headline - "Fractured" - regarding economic disparity and an eroding middle class. "While the congressman talks about preserving the middle class, the reality of the situation is there is no middle class," he said. "It's being fractured and eviscerated."
Lynch agreed that "walking off the street and running for the U.S. Congress has its challenges." But, he said, "One of the benefits is my hand is not in anyone's pocket."
Also, Lynch said, "I am not going to be another vote for John Boehner. I've worn our nation's uniform. I care deeply about the current state of our state, the future direction of our country, and I'm not going to let John Boehner or anyone else force me to rubber-stamp a policy that I don't think is good for Rhode Islanders."
That prompted Cicilline to say that Lynch told Channel 12's Tim White he would vote for Boehner as speaker. Lynch disagreed, saying he told White that as a first-year legislator, he'd support House leadership, but he never said he'd vote for Boehner.
So let's go to the videotape. On Channel 12's "Newsmakers," White asked Lynch: "Would you support [Boehner] to be the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives?" Lynch replied: "Yes, absolutely. I wouldn't give him a blank check, and I wouldn't rubber-stamp everything that comes out of his mouth. But would I support him? Yes."
On Friday, Lynch said, "I said I would support him, but I never intended to convey I would vote for Boehner as speaker. I think there needs to be a change of leadership at the highest levels of government."
Lynch seems to recognize that he's not gaining traction while parsing his views on Boehner. "While my opponent will probably make this about Democrats or Republicans, it's time to put people over politics," he said in the debate. "This is about a young combat veteran that cares deeply about America and is not satisfied with the direction of it."
Cicilline, meanwhile, seems to recognize that many Rhode Islanders aren't eager to head in the direction outlined by Ryan and Boehner. "What we don't want as a state is to give one more vote to a set of policies that are not good for Rhode Island," he said.
In the next Laurelmead debate, Democratic Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin will face his Republican challenger, Sen. Dawson Hodgson, at 10:30 a.m. Friday, Oct. 24