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Bingaman Departure Highlights Wild West

Bill Clark/Roll Call
The retirement of Sen. Jeff Bingaman (left) will make Sen. John Cornyn’s job as National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman a little easier.

The entire Southwest is primed for turnover in 2012.

Recent Senate retirements in Arizona and New Mexico and competitive races in Nevada, coupled with growing populations, have elevated the Wild West to be the next major political battleground.

The region will play a decisive role in Democrats’ ability to hold their Senate majority.

Within a week, New Mexico and Arizona moved from likely Senate seat holds for each party to potentially highly competitive races, and they could both result in the vacancy of at least one House seat.

More turnover in the Southwest is expected in Nevada, where Sen. John Ensign (R) will face tough challenges from both parties, and Texas, where Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) is retiring.

Nevada Reps. Dean Heller (R) and Shelley Berkley (D) are looking at Ensign’s seat and are widely considered favorites over the ethics-plagued incumbent. Their bids would open up two House seats in Nevada to go along with the seat that the state will gain through reapportionment, making three of the state’s four districts open-seat races.

A large pool of Republicans are vying for Hutchison’s seat, and the political intrigue in Texas will largely be centered on that primary. But the Lone Star State is also adding four districts through reapportionment, and Democrats are looking to take back a couple of House districts lost last year.

Add in what are expected to be competitive re-election bids for Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), plus the race for the open Democratic seat in North Dakota, and it is clear there will be plenty of 2012 action west of the Mississippi.

Democrats were successful in two vulnerable Western states last cycle. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) overcame a challenging nationwide landscape for Democrats and an active political force in the tea party.

“The open seats out West really raise the stakes for us now,” said a knowledgeable Democratic source with extensive experience in the region. “The Latino vote in all three states [Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico] will be vital for Democrats. We saw what it did for Bennet and Reid in 2010, and we’ll need to find a way to successfully replicate those efforts across the region in 2012.”

President Barack Obama also broke into the West en route to his 2008 victory, including wins in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico after each voted Republican four years earlier. With Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) off the ballot in 2012, Democrats want to expand the electoral map to Arizona as well.

Republicans are sounding confident about their chances when it comes to the Senate, getting a boost in recent weeks by top recruits jumping in and Democratic retirements.

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