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Roll Call

R.I. GOP Still Hopeful Whitehouse Challenger Will Emerge

Douglas Graham/Roll Call
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is one of several Democrats from the large class of 2006 facing their first re-election test in 2012.

With 2012 Senate recruiting efforts now in full swing, Rhode Island Republicans continue to struggle to find a viable challenger to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D).

Two potential GOP challengers spoke to Roll Call on Tuesday and sounded anything but confident as they consider trying to knock off the Ocean State’s junior Senator in 2012.

“I am giving it a thought,” Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian said Tuesday afternoon, while acknowledging he has put very little effort into his consideration. “Obviously it’s very early in the process. It’s something that I at least want to give some thought to.”

Avedisian, a moderate Republican and mayor of the state’s second-largest city for the past decade, said he has not been in touch with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, conducted any polling or begun a federal fundraising effort. He reported $71,000 in his state campaign account, which is not transferable to a federal account, at the end of December.

“I assume it’s going to be a very difficult race,” he told Roll Call. “It’s going to be a presidential year. There’s going to be coattail effects from the president. They’ll energize their base.”

Avedisian’s comments came the same day that a fellow Republican, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who leads the state’s third-largest city, told a local television station he has ruled out a run at Whitehouse, which he estimated would require roughly $5 million.

Whitehouse reported $723,000 in his campaign account at the end of December and has since launched an aggressive fundraising campaign. More than 350 people crowded into a Providence fundraiser in late January that included Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), labor leaders and virtually every other top Democratic official in the state. The event, according to the local National Public Radio affiliate, likely cleared six figures.

Outgoing state GOP Chairman Giovanni Cicione, who said earlier in the year that he was considering a run, told Roll Call on Tuesday, “I really am not spending any time thinking about it.”
 
Cicione said that either Avedisian or former Gov. Donald Carcieri would be his “first choices” among potential challengers.
 
Avedisian “already has the political support he needs to run a good race,” according to Cicione.

Carcieri, a wealthy former businessman who reached the term limit as governor last year, has been spending much of his time in Florida and isn’t expected back in the state until later in the spring. “Carcieri has purposefully been spending time with his family and not been involved in politics,” Cicione said. “But I suspect when he gets back, that’s the time he’ll start talking to people.”

Polling shows Whitehouse with relatively high unfavorable ratings, and the consensus among Republicans seems to be that the 2012 race can be competitive despite the state’s overwhelming Democratic lean.

“I think he’s vulnerable,” Cicione said, noting that the Democrat’s “numbers will trend up until people start reminding voters of his record of public outbursts and bad votes.”

Whitehouse drew fire from tea party supporters from across the nation for going after the grass-roots conservative movement during a memorable floor speech in late 2009.

Speculation continues to swirl around the potential candidacy of former Hasbro CEO Alan Hassenfeld, a prospective candidate who Cicione says is “intriguing.” Cicione added that although Hassenfeld may sound a bit like Carcieri on paper, there is an important difference.

“Alan is a very socially liberal business type,” Cicione said. “He joked with a reporter that he’s a conservative Democrat. There’s a very, very clear distinction between Carcieri and Hassenfeld.”

The similarity, of course, would be that both men could likely help fund their own campaigns, which could be a requirement for a credible challenger given the fundraising challenges for a Republican candidate in the heavily Democratic Ocean State.

There could be a bright spot on the horizon for Rhode Island Republicans, however.

As Cicione prepares to leave at the conclusion of his second term in mid-March, the new state GOP leader could be former National Republican Committee Chief of Staff Ken McKay.

The Rhode Island native served former RNC Chairman Michael Steele until a spending controversy forced him out of the high-profile job last April. But McKay’s experience and his national fundraising connections could help bring the state party back to relevance in the future.

It’s worth noting that McKay is a former Carcieri campaign manager.

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