The good news for Sheldon Whitehouse in the new Public Policy Polling survey is that his job approval rating continues to rise. The bad news is that he’s too close for comfort to the crucial 50% mark against potential challengers.
Those were the headlines out of the poll for Eyewitness News political analyst Joe Fleming when I spoke with him about it earlier today.
“Anytime an incumbent’s below 50%, you’ve got to be concerned with that person’s reelection – and we know from past WPRI surveys Sheldon has had some bad job performance ratings,” Fleming said. “However, they seem to be going up, and this poll shows it going up. So it seems like Whitehouse is heading in the right direction, from a low point.”
“It’s not great, but it’s not the end of the world for him,” he added.
The poll will also give pause to former Gov. Donald Carcieri as he considers whether to jump into the race. His disapproval rating stands at 49% almost two months after he left office. Carcieri would also face some of the same liabilities as an incumbent, since memories of his eight years as governor will be fresh in voters’ minds.
If you’re Carcieri, “you’ve got higher negatives than the guy you’re challenging,” Fleming said. “I don’t see him running again, but you never know in politics.”
Then there’s Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian. Whitehouse’s support was lowest – 47% – against Avedisian than in any other head-to-head matchup in the PPP survey. But is he too moderate – and too close to Lincoln Chafee – to be the Republican nominee?
“The Republicans have to decide what they want,” Fleming said. “If they want this seat, letting Avedisian have a free run at it would be a smart move; putting up a primary opponent would not be, because he may decide, I’m not going to run if I have a Republican primary.”
“The Republicans and Avedisian have to make peace in some way,” Fleming said. “He could be a strong candidate.”
The poll shows a solid block of 35% or so of voters who will vote for any candidate other than Whitehouse, so any challenger has “got to find another 15%. And you might say, 15% – it’s not a lot – but it’s a lot,” Fleming said.
Money will be a key factor. Whitehouse is ramping up his fundraising – he had $723,000 on hand as of Dec. 31 – whereas his potential opponents haven’t even begun to tap donors, though Carcieri could put some of his own cash into a campaign. Either way, Fleming thinks any potential Whitehouse challengers will need to be in position by early August to have a solid shot.
Whitehouse could also benefit next year from being a Democrat running in Rhode Island in a presidential election year, with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket – particularly since the state’s Republicans failed to capitalize last November in what was otherwise a banner year for the G.O.P. nationally.
“It could be an interesting race, but it’s still very early,” Fleming said. “We’ve seen polls that show a race is going to be very interesting early on, but then it all depends on who runs and how much money they raise.”
Oh, and what about Buddy Cianci? Fleming doesn’t see him running for elected office again. Politically, he said, “the question is how high Buddy can go” – that is, there may be a ceiling to his support. Fleming recalled how Joseph Garrahy crushed Cianci back in the 1980 race for governor, his last statewide bid.