Spring training hasnít even started for the 2011 baseball season, but itís already clear that control of the Senate is up for grabs this election cycle.
Almost before the cycle even began, Democratic strategists were being forced on the defensive by early Republican recruiting and the sheer number of Democratic Senate seats that they are defending in 2012.
None of this means Republicans will net the three or four Senate seats (depending on the outcome of the presidential race) that the party needs for control. Nor does it guarantee the Senate will remain ďin playĒ throughout the cycle, since additional retirements, new recruits or a changed political environment could alter the GOPís prospects.
Still, the fact that control of the Senate now looks to be up for grabs next year shouldnít be ignored because it will affect how some incumbents vote over the next 18 months and how party leaders will behave as the next election nears.
With 23 Democratic Senate seats and only 10 Republican Senate seats up for election in 2012, Democrats face a daunting initial landscape.
Two of the four early retirements ó Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) ó donít have a lot of an effect at this point because their parties are likely to retain control of their seats (Lieberman caucuses with Democrats). But Sen. Kent Conradís retirement does affect the electoral math because he is probably the only Democrat in North Dakota who had any chance of holding onto the seat.
And Sen. Jim Webbís retirement announcement Wednesday adds to Democratic problems in Virginia, where former Sen. George Allen (R) has already announced his intention to try to win back his old seat.
The two next most vulnerable seats this cycle are held by Democrats in Nebraska and Montana.
Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning (R) has been itching to run for the Senate for years, and heís intent on taking on Sen. Ben Nelson (D) next year. Bruning has already been re-elected statewide twice without opposition, and early polling shows he begins a general election contest against the incumbent as a frontrunner.
Of course, Bruning may not have the GOP field to himself because most insiders expect state Treasurer Don Stenberg to enter the GOP race as well.
While Nelson could benefit from a fractious Republican primary ó during which the less charismatic Stenberg undoubtedly would try to paint the more outspoken Bruning as insufficiently conservative ó Democrats surely will have trouble with this seat in a presidential year.
In Montana, the recent entry of Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) into the Senate contest is a potential game-changer. Rehberg, who represents the state at-large in the House of Representatives, served six years at lieutenant governor. He lost a Senate race by 5 points to Sen. Max Baucus (D) in 1996.
Sen. Jon Tester (D) was president of the Montana state Senate when he edged out then-Sen. Conrad Burns by less than a point in the very Democratic year of 2006. Republicans are likely to use Testerís votes for the stimulus bill and health care reform to tie him to President Barack Obama and the national Democratic Party.
While those are the most likely seats to flip in the Senate next year, other Democratic-held seats already look to be at some risk, including Missouri.