When a poll made the startling claim that Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., "may be facing his most difficult re-election campaign in 16 years," the news came as a shock to residents in the Ocean State, where Kennedy has been easily re-elected since taking office in 1995.
The poll, conducted by WPRI-12, found that 31 percent of those interviewed would "consider another candidate" and 28 percent would "vote to replace" Kennedy. Only 35 percent said they would vote to give Kennedy a ninth term.
Political experts say they doubt Kennedy is in serious danger, pointing out that the poll did not pit Kennedy against a hypothetical opponent.
But the voter discontent exposed by the survey, coupled with Republican Scott Brown's shock election to replace Kennedy's father, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, it has given Republicans a glimmer of hope that they can successfully challenge incumbents even in Democratic strongholds such as New England.
"There is a flicker of life for Republicans in New England," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report.
Rothenberg and other race analysts put only a few seats in play so far, though.
They include two seats in New Hampshire and one in Connecticut. In the Granite State, Democrats and Republicans are fighting neck and neck to fill the seat being vacated by Democrat Paul Hodes, who is running for Senate, and Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter is trailing Republican opponent Frank Guinta by 10 points in a new poll.
She faces "an extremely difficult challenge to keep her seat," according to Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which conducted the poll with WMUR.
In Connecticut, Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy, is also facing a significant challenge from Republicans and his seat is considered in play.
Beyond this trio of officially competitive New England races, analysts say, the GOP may also have a shot at winning back the Connecticut seat Republican Rep. Chris Shays lost to Democrat Jim Himes in 2008. And in Massachusetts, the GOP is likely to mount serious efforts to unseat Rep. Niki Tsongas and seven-term Rep. Bill Delahunt, whose district is the most "red" in this traditionally "blue" state.
Tad Devine, a political consultant who has worked on many a New England Democratic campaign and is currently advising former Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee in his efforts to become governor of Rhode Island as an independent, said the new Kennedy polling data does not surprise him, given the mood of the country and the state of the economy.
Kennedy will win re-election, Devine said, but "voters are angry, they are very upset" and the poll numbers signal that Kennedy "is going to have to run a really serious and vigorous campaign."
Democrats have hardly had time to focus on New England, because just a few hundred miles west, they are poised to potentially lose eight seats in New York and a half-dozen in Pennsylvania, according to political analysts.
"I look at the last two elections as the pendulum swinging so far to the left that it is bound to come back," said David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Political Report.