Sen. Jim Webb’s retirement announcement Wednesday added yet another degree of difficulty to Democrats’ efforts to hold the party’s Senate majority in 2012, as Republicans continue to spread the map with top recruits.
The Virginian is the third Senate Democrat to announce in the first month of the new Congress that he will not seek re-election. Two of the three, Webb and Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.), are in states Republicans have clear opportunities to win.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee immediately gloated, with spokesman Brian Walsh stating, “Webb’s decision not to seek re-election makes Virginia an even stronger pickup opportunity for Republicans in 2012.”
Along with the pressure of defending 13 more seats than Republicans, the instability of the 53-47 Democratic majority is also affected by the early GOP recruitment victories in states such as Virginia, Nebraska, Missouri and Montana, with more possibly soon to come in states such as Florida, Hawaii and New Mexico.
In Virginia, former Sen. George Allen, whom Webb defeated in an upset in 2006, is already running for his old seat. Insiders say he has the organization and fundraising necessary for a winning primary and general election campaign.
In a statement Wednesday, Allen said, “I did not enter into this race to run against any one person, but to fight for the families of Virginia to improve their opportunities in life.” He said his campaign would continue as planned.
Still, most Democratic strategists are not ready to cede the majority just yet in the wake of Webb’s retirement.
“After 2004, Karl Rove said there was a permanent Republican majority, and after 2008 it appeared Democrats had secured the upper hand,” Democratic consultant Dave Beattie said. “The reality of elections is that voters are looking for answers and solutions. They don’t have great party loyalty in terms of who can deliver that.”
Strategists also said the party’s chances in Virginia did not take as big a hit as some might think with Webb off the ticket.
“Anyone that’s writing this seat off for Democrats doesn’t know Virginia. It’s a very winnable race for us,” said Democratic consultant Mo Elleithee, who has worked extensively in the state. “It’s now just a matter of figuring out who the candidate is going to be.”
Only hours after Webb’s announcement, that answer remained unclear. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine, a former Virginia governor, has said in recent weeks that he was committed to helping President Barack Obama win re-election and would not run for the Senate if Webb retired. Democratic insiders said Wednesday they believe that continues to be true.