While retirements are one of the biggest questions at the beginning of each election cycle, both parties are keenly aware of how much the overall Senate landscape can change in the course of a year — or even a few months.
At this time two years ago, Democrats were cruising into the 2010 cycle with what appeared to be several competitive pickup opportunities, including GOP open seats in Missouri, Ohio and Florida and another likely open seat in New Hampshire. Arlen Specter was a Republican Senator in Pennsylvania, and now-Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) was believed to be eyeing a gubernatorial bid.
Republicans ended up winning all of those races, as well as a seat in Massachusetts in a January 2010 special election. Democrats won two of their three seats that were deemed the most vulnerable at the beginning of the cycle: Connecticut and Nevada.
Republicans like their odds heading into 2012, with Democrats defending 23 seats compared with the GOP’s 10. And early recruiting successes in competitive states have further boosted GOP optimism.
“Strong Republican candidates are already stepping forward in key races around the country, and Democrats in competitive states are quickly finding themselves on the defensive for their reckless spending record of the last four years,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh said. “We still have a long way to go until Election Day though, and no one on our side is taking anything for granted. But clearly Republican momentum from November 2010 has carried over into the 2012 cycle and we are focused on winning back a Senate Republican majority next year.”
Democrats, though, caution that they were expected at the beginning of the cycle to pick up seats last year and instead lost seven.
“Republican primaries cost them Senate seats last cycle, and there’s no question it could happen again,” said Eric Schultz, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Schultz held up the example of then-Rep. Mike Castle, who was considered a shoo-in to pick up a Democratic-held seat in Delaware last cycle until his upset in the GOP primary by a tea-party-backed candidate.
“Time after time, Republicans nominated unelectable candidates. It’s far too early for Republicans to declare any victories. Just ask Mike Castle,” he said.
Democrats’ top opportunity to play offense this cycle appears to be in Massachusetts, though Sen. Scott Brown (R) raised $734,000 last quarter and has more than $7 million on hand.
Democrats already have two open seats they will be defending — one of which appears to be a difficult hold.
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) is one of the three incumbents to announce their retirements so far, opening up a seat in a very Republican-friendly state where the Democratic bench is thin at best. State Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk (R) is exploring a bid, and several more Republicans in the state could run, including Rep. Rick Berg. No Democrats have announced bids.
The retirement announcement by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) set off a Democratic primary battle that will include at least one Congressman.