Carcieri, Avedisian, Cicione may take on Whitehouse

Even before last week’s election, political insiders were wondering which Republican would step up and try to deny U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse a second term in the November 2012 election. Whitehouse is a juicy target, but the Republican Party in Rhode Island doesn’t have a deep bench of well-known potential candidates with the financial wherewithal to mount a Senate bid.

In an interview on Monday, Cicione told me his favored candidate is outgoing Gov. Donald Carcieri. “We’re hopeful that the governor will get bored after a couple weeks” once he leaves office, Cicione said.

I’m a little skeptical about whether Carcieri will decide to run – his second term has been grueling and his approval rating was only 44% in October – but he has the national connections to mount a credible bid. Carcieri’s spokeswoman, Amy Kempe, downplayed the possibility that Carcieri will run but did not rule it out when I asked her about it.

Another possible Republican candidate getting some buzz is Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, a close ally of Gov.-elect Lincoln Chafee. Avedisian steamrolled his Democratic opponent last week, winning 80% of the vote. Like Carcieri, Avedisian is staying coy for now about his 2012 intentions – he told me he is busy getting ready for a new term as mayor. But I got the distinct impression he will consider challenging Whitehouse, too.

Cicione also floated the names of Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, Lincoln Town Administrator Joseph Almond or Woonsocket Mayor Leo Fontaine. There’s also the possibility that a wealthy outsider – perhaps a business leader – could emerge from out of nowhere to contest the race, the same way Carcieri did in 2002 and Anthony Gemma did this year.

Then there is Gio Cicione himself – the chairman has begun floating trial balloons to see whether he could get enough support to run. “If I get my law practice in order and find the resources, I’d probably consider it,” he told me on Monday and Roll Call on Tuesday. But Cicione was honest about what it would take. “It’s just a question of being able to tap the money,” he said.

Cicione doesn’t doubt national money will be available to the Republican who challenges the first-term Democrat. “There is an anti-Whitehouse establishment in Washington that I think would be very interested,” he said. “I had people calling me from Washington before this election [last Tuesday] asking who was running so they could give them money. … This is an eminently winnable race.”

Whitehouse, for his part, had $575,672 in his campaign war chest as of Sept. 30. He will likely benefit from the fact that Barack Obama’s name will be at the top of the Democratic Party’s 2012 ticket – Obama won Rhode Island by a 28-point margin in 2008. And our WPRI 12 poll in September showed Rhode Islanders warming to the senator, with his favorable rating at 40%, up from 33% in January. We’ll see what happens.

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