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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.
Others on the list of possible Democratic candidates are Jody Wagner, who lost the lieutenant governor’s race in 2009, Rep. Gerry Connolly from the state’s populous northern region, state House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong, and former Reps. Tom Perriello, Glenn Nye and Rick Boucher.
None of them have said they are interested in the race, but Democrats are considering a crowded primary nonetheless.
A source close to Terry McAuliffe, who ran for governor in 2009 and is believed to be running again for that job in 2013, said the former DNC chairman is interested in an executive role, not the Senate seat.
Webb was dragged into the 2006 race with very little money and with just a few months left before the primary. One former Virginia Democratic operative said Webb would have certain inherent advantages as an incumbent, but having a candidate who shuns the politics of a campaign could be troublesome in the current landscape — especially lacking a “macaca” moment from his opponent.
“Jim Webb hates, hates campaigning. It was an uncomfortable thing for him to do,” the source said. “It’s not as clear-cut as one might think.”
Strategists cited the Northern Virginia exurban counties that have swung in recent elections. Obama won Prince William and Loudoun counties by double digits in 2008 on his way to becoming the first Democratic nominee to carry the state since the landslide 1964 election. Bob McDonnell (R) saw similar margins there in his successful gubernatorial run in 2009.
Unlike the 2006 Webb-Allen race, this one coincides with a presidential election, and Democrats maintain that all indications are that Obama will compete in the state again, giving the Democratic Senate nominee — whoever that turns out to be — a major edge.
Members of the tea party movement jumped on the news and cited it as yet another victory for its cause. Richmond Tea Party President Jamie Radtke is already running, and two more conservative Republicans are also considering bids.
“This is yet another win for the tea party movement as we build upon the momentum of the 2010 elections,” the Tea Party Express stated in a fundraising e-mail.
Webb announced his first Senate bid on Feb. 8, 2006, one day before his 60th birthday. He announced his retirement on Wednesday, his 65th birthday, with a promise to continue pushing the issues he has advocated in his first four years in office.
“It has been a great and continuing privilege to serve in the United States Senate, and one I have you to thank for,” Webb said in an e-mail to supporters. “I am very proud of my talented and dedicated staff, which has worked tirelessly to resolve the issues on which I based my candidacy, and to protect the interests of all Virginians in this national forum.”
Roll Call Politics rates this race a Tossup.
Former Virginia Democratic Party Chairman Richard Cranwell called Webb a “phenomenal” Senator and predicted the political landscape will look much different in November 2012 than it did three months ago.
“My guess is by the time the election gets here it’s going to be a different world out there,” Cranwell said. “The economy is going to be a whole lot better, and it will be a good environment for Democrats.”
At the moment, Republicans are gearing up to take back several seats they lost in 2006. Allen is running for his old seat in Virginia, while Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) is taking on Sen. Jon Tester (D). Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), another first-term Democrat, has already drawn a couple of candidates, including former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and former House candidate Ed Martin.
Other Democratic seats could be vulnerable as well. If Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) runs, he will likely face Attorney General Jon Bruning (R), who is amassing a grass-roots campaign team to compete in all corners of the state. Republicans are also waiting on former Rep. Heather Wilson in New Mexico and former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, both of whom would give the party a chance for victory.