Updated: Thursday, 02 Dec 2010, 5:06 PM EST
Published : Thursday, 02 Dec 2010, 4:50 PM EST
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - John Robitaille, the Republican who nearly defeated Lincoln Chafee in last month's gubernatorial election, is seriously weighing a run against U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse in 2012.
In an exclusive interview, Robitaille told WPRI.com he has asked his political advisers to conduct a feasibility study to assess what it would take for him to mount a credible challenge against the first-term Democrat.
"I haven't made up my mind yet, and I'm not going to until after the first of the year," Robitaille said by phone from Hawaii, where he is visiting his daughters and grandchildren. "But it definitely is on the table." Another possibility would be a second bid for the governor's office in 2014, he said.
During a half-hour conversation, Robitaille, a 62-year-old Portsmouth resident, also discussed how the Moderate Party likely cost him the governor's office and what he expects from Chafee. The full interview will be published Friday and Monday on WPRI.com's Nesi's Notes blog.
Robitaille suggested a Republican candidate will need to raise between $4 million and $5 million to stand a serious chance of defeating Whitehouse, who won the seat in 2006 from then-Republican Chafee.
"So whoever decides to run for that seat against Whitehouse would need to really start planning, probably as early as January or February of this coming year … and see if he can raise enough money," said Robitaille.
Whitehouse had $575,672 in his campaign war chest as of Sept. 30, according to his most recent filing with the Federal Election Commission. Robitaille spent $603,833 on his gubernatorial campaign, compared with a combined $5.2 million by Chafee and Democrat Frank Caprio, Board of Elections filings show.
Eyewitness News political analyst Joe Fleming agreed that money will be the biggest challenge for Robitaille, "which is the same problem he had in this election. He had a very difficult time raising money."
Uphill battle for Republicans
Democrats face a huge challenge in holding onto their Senate majority in 2012. The party must defend 23 seats, compared with only 10 for the G.O.P., and Rhode Island is a must-win for President Barack Obama's party.
Robitaille acknowledged he could face an uphill battle, particularly if the economy improves and boosts Obama's approval rating. "I'm no fool," he said. "It's going to be a presidential election year, and the Democratic Party is not going to want to give up that seat."
Rhode Island Republicans argue Whitehouse will be vulnerable in 2012, though people close to the senator say that's wishful thinking on the G.O.P.'s part. Whitehouse's favorable rating was 40 percent in a September WPRI 12 poll of likely voters, up from 33 percent in January.
"Sheldon Whitehouse's numbers haven't been the greatest – that does give [Robitaille] an opportunity," Fleming said. "But Sheldon's numbers have come up since January, and he's really working to build his numbers up in the state."
Robitaille isn't the only Republican weighing a Senate run in 2012 – Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian and Party Chairman Gio Cicione have also said they will consider it. Outgoing Gov. Donald Carcieri's name has also been thrown into the ring.
Avedisian would be "a very credible candidate," Fleming said, as the moderate mayor of Rhode Island's second-largest city. He would also have the support of Chafee, who is close to Avedisian.
Fleming said a race between Whitehouse and either Robitaille or Carcieri would likely mirror last month's 1st Congressional District contest, which pitted a liberal Democrat in Providence Mayor David Cicilline against a conservative Republican in state Rep. John Loughlin. Cicilline won by five points.
Robitaille, a former aide to Carcieri, began the governor's race largely unknown but wound up winning 34 percent of the vote to Chafee's 36 percent, boosting his visibility in the process.
But Fleming said a four-way gubernatorial race and a Senate race are very different animals. "It's not like he was near 50 percent," he said. "He hasn't really shown a great deal of strength up to this point."
Robitaille said he was discussing other possibilities as he considers his next move, including writing a book or taking a job with a public relations firm, a private company or a college. But politics will be part of the equation.
"Wherever I end up in January, I need to find myself a position where it still leaves me that option of running in either 2012 or running for governor again in 2014," he said. "I'm very cognizant of that."
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