2012 Looks No Better for Senate Democrats

Posted March 19, 2010 at 5:52pm

Senate Democrats are no doubt bracing for sizable losses in the fall elections, but an early look at the 2012 map shows a rebound for the party could be difficult next cycle when President Barack Obama will be at the top of the ticket.

Although most analysis is purely speculative at this point, there isn’t a lot of guesswork in the numbers: Of the 33 Senate seats up in 2012, 24 are currently held by Democrats or Independents who caucus with them. What’s more, all of the first-term Senators in this class were elected in a midterm cycle and will likely face a different electorate in a presidential year.

“In ’06 we were able to eke out victories by riding a very strong national wave that gave us a couple extra points here and there, but we also didn’t have a presidential election going on at the same time that will have its own set of dynamics that will play a role,” said Phil Singer, the communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the 2006 cycle.

When the national mood was in Democrats’ favor in 2006, the party picked up six seats and won the majority. Brian Nick, the communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2006, said that if the political environment is anything like it is today, Republicans will have great opportunities in Senate contests in Virginia, Missouri and Montana during a presidential year.

“Those to me would be clear opportunities to beat freshman incumbents who won in an extremely tumultuous environment for Republicans,” Nick said.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) will likely be a top target in 2012 since he won by about 3,600 votes in 2006 and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried the state in the 2008 presidential race. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) is most-often mentioned as a possible opponent, although some local sources say he could opt to run in the open-seat gubernatorial race in 2012 instead.

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) will also likely face another tough contest if he runs for re-election after winning his first term with just 50 percent of the vote. Although former Rep. Tom Davis (R) has been mentioned as a possible opponent, he eschewed that possibility and instead suggested that the man Webb barely defeated, former Sen. George Allen (R), is looking at a comeback.

“I know he’s interested, and I think he’s looking for some vindication,” Davis said. “I was pleased to leave Congress undefeated and unindicted.”

Missouri is hosting a competitive Senate race in 2010 and will likely have another one in 2012, when Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) is up for re-election. McCaskill narrowly beat then-Sen. Jim Talent (R), and according to Talent’s 2006 campaign manager, Gregg Keller, he is being encouraged to think about running against her a second time.

“Everywhere he goes in Missouri, he has activists, donors and longtime friends urging him to seriously consider running for Senate in 2012,” Keller said.

Any retirements or vacancies in the Senate before 2012 could create a competitive races in states such as West Virginia, Hawaii and Wisconsin.

Given 92-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd’s (D-W.Va.) age and recent health problems, there is much speculation about whether he will finish his term — let alone run for re-election. The race will be competitive without Byrd, although Gov. Joe Manchin would make a formidable Democratic nominee. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) is likely the strongest potential Republican candidate, although Manchin would be the early favorite in that race.

Several Republican and Democratic sources mentioned 75-year-old Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) might look to retire in 2012. Kohl had less than $25,000 in his bank account at the end of 2009, although he is personally wealthy and gave more than $6 million of his own money to his 2006 race against a little-known Republican. What’s more, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — a rising star in the House and ranking member on the Budget Committee — would be a top-flight candidate if Senate Republicans can recruit him.

At the age of 85, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) could also be a possible candidate for retirement after three terms. He also has one of the smallest campaign war chests in his Senate class, with only $86,000 in cash on hand. Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, arguably one of the most popular Republicans in the history of the state, has not ruled out running for that Senate seat after she is term-limited out of office in 2010.

Nevada is bound to see another heated Senate battle in 2012, regardless of whether scandal-tarred Sen. John Ensign (R) decides to run for re-election. Rep. Shelley Berkley is one of the top Democratic names circulating as a possible challenger, and Rep. Dean Heller (R) has not ruled out a primary challenge. Republicans would prefer to see Ensign step aside and clear the way for Heller, who was recruited to run against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in 2010.

Ensign, who is under investigation by both the Justice Department and the Senate Ethics Committee for allegedly helping a former aide find lobbying work after having an affair with the aide’s wife, may be forced out of office before the end of his term, in which case the governor would appoint someone to serve out the remainder of the term.

In addition to Nevada, Democrats have the opportunity to play offense in at least a couple of states.

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) will start the cycle with a target on his back given that his state traditionally votes overwhelmingly for Democrats. However, Brown also has more money in his campaign than any Senator up for re-election in 2012, with just more than $6 million on hand as of early February.

At least one Senate Democratic aide also suggested that the party could look to target Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) in 2010.

But with so many Democrats on the ballot, there’s no doubt that the party will be playing defense for the most part in 2012. Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Bob Casey (Pa.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) are all running in competitive or Republican-leaning states.

Finally, Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) could also have a tough re-election battle in the primary and general election for the second cycle in a row. Rep. Chris Murphy (D) is often mentioned as a possible candidate for Senate if Lieberman decides to retire.

The last time this class of Senators was up for re-election during a presidential year was 2000, when Democrats picked up six seats in Delaware, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and Washington. Republicans picked up seats in Virginia and Nevada.

There’s also speculation about who might take over as chairman of both the DSCC and NRSC after this cycle.

DSCC Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) is up for re-election in 2012, and therefore can’t take another turn heading the committee. A leadership source said there was no obvious successor to Menendez.

Provided that NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) continues to have a strong tenure this cycle, there is speculation that he might run for another term depending on whether he can ascend the leadership ladder. If Cornyn decides not to seek the position again, Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) is mentioned as a possible contender to take over in 2012.

Emily Cadei and John McArdle contributed to this report.