Just a week removed from the 2010 election, Rhode Island's political class has already turned its attention to the 2012 races, with state GOP chairman Giovanni Cicione floating his own name for a run against US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse - and suggesting that outgoing governor Donald Carcieri or Warwick Mayor Scott Avedesian might make even better candidates.
The GOP sees an inviting target in Whitehouse, who has turned himself into a leading liberal voice in the Senate - and occasionally appeared something of a lefty caricature, most notably when he lambasted an obstructionist Republican Party during the health care debate last year, calling GOP supporters "birthers," "fanatics" and members of "Aryan support groups."
Shortly thereafter, amid growing disenchantment with the Democratic Congress, Whitehouse's approval ratings went upside down in Brown University's public opinion poll - with more respondents giving him "fair" or "poor" ratings than "good" or "excellent" - and have remained as such. In September, 49 percent gave him a "fair" or "poor" grade and 41 percent "excellent" or "good."
Republicans also take some comfort in GOP candidate John Robitaille's near-miss in last week's gubernatorial race.
But there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the Republicans' chances against Whitehouse. First, the Republican wave that swept the country this year looked more like a trickle in Rhode Island, with the party falling short in all the statewide races and making only modest gains in the General Assembly. And Robitaille's surge looks less impressive when you realize he won just 34 percent of the vote.
Continued economic stagnation could help the GOP nationally in 2012, especially in the Senate where Democrats will have to defend far more seats than the Republicans. But with the party in control of the House, it will be harder to push all the blame onto Democrats. And with President Obama atop the ticket, getting out Democratic voters who stayed home last week, downballot blue-state candidates like Whitehouse are likely to fare better than some of their Democratic colleagues did in the 2010 contests.
The Whitehouse camp can also point to some deliverables: federal aid to combat the floods, stimulus money directed toward seniors - particularly important in one of the grayest states in the union; work closing the Medicare "donut hole." And Whitehouse proved a shrewd campaigner in 2006 when he ousted a popular, sitting senator in Lincoln Chafee.
Moreover, the Republicans mentioned for a 2012 run have their own weaknesses: Carcieri's approval ratings have been worse - significantly worse - than Whitehouse's; Avedisian's moderate politics could be trouble in a GOP primary and he has a small geographic base; Cicione is not a household name and cannot claim the fundraising network of elected officials.