2012 Won’t Be Any Easier for Senate Democrats

Posted October 27, 2010 at 7:00pm

Correction Appended

Even if Democrats retain control of the Senate on Tuesday, an early look ahead to 2012 suggests their days may still be numbered.

The landscape will shift depending on the final tally of the midterm elections, but the 2012 Senate map shows at least seven seats in play as tossups starting Nov. 3 ‘ the majority of which are held by Democrats.

It’s a map that at first blush looks to be just as competitive as this cycle, and it is likely to be complicated by retirements over the coming months and several potential 2006 rematches. If Republicans come close but don’t take over the Senate, 2012 will be an even more pitched battle for control of the chamber.

‘I don’t believe we’re going to win back the Senate [this year], but I think we’re going to do very well,’ said Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), one of 10 Republicans up next cycle. ‘We have a much stronger chance in 2012.’

Democrats admit they have the tough 2012 map. This is the first re-election for members of the 2006 class, which delivered the Senate majority to Democrats. Likely to be near the top of GOP target lists are first-term Sens. Bob Casey (Pa.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Jon Tester (Mont.) and Jim Webb (Va.).

The Show-Me State will almost certainly feature a battle royal in 2012.

McCaskill faces a possible rematch with former Sen. Jim Talent (R), whom she unseated in 2006 and who is widely believed to be considering another run. It’s one of the only battleground states targeted by President Barack Obama in 2008 that he lost, and Rep. Roy Blunt (R) is favored to win the state’s open Senate seat Tuesday.

[IMGCAP(1)]Webb is still deciding whether he’ll seek re-election after narrowly unseating then-Sen. George Allen (R) four years ago. Webb notoriously hates to campaign, but he’s been active in helping Democrats this year. Allen, a former governor, is interested in making another run.

A GOP source said the party thinks Tester will be a prime target in Montana, and there are whispers that Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) is interested in making a bid.

But perhaps the most vulnerable Democrat up next cycle is Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), who is unpopular back home and among the Democratic base. Polls show Gov. Dave Heineman (R), who has made no secret about his interest in running for Senate, holding a strong lead over the conservative Democrat.

Other more established Democrats who are likely to face a competitive re-election battle are Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.). Lieberman lost a 2006 Democratic primary and annoyed Democrats by campaigning aggressively for the 2008 presidential bid of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). A Public Policy Polling survey done earlier this month showed just 24 percent of Nutmeg State voters want to re-elect Lieberman. Rep. Christopher Murphy (Conn.) is often mentioned as a top Senate contender for Democrats.

The other story of the 2010 elections ‘ a tea party purity test that has been a factor in several high-profile GOP primaries ‘ is likely to carry over to the next cycle.

Tea party activists across the nation say they’ll go RINO hunting two years from now, and they’ve affixed that ‘Republican in Name Only’ tag to Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine). Hatch, well aware of fellow Utah Sen. Bob Bennett’s loss at the state Republican convention this year, has shifted several of his positions to the right, suggesting the White House shouldn’t expect to compromise with him anytime soon. The Utah Republican has barnstormed the country to help raise money for 2010 GOP challengers, and boasts $2.3 million on hand for his own race next year. He’s also held a half-dozen town halls since April. Such gatherings used to garner 50 attendees in past years, but this year ‘we’re now getting 500 to 700 mad-as-hell people, and I don’t blame them,’ Hatch said in an interview.

Sen. Scott Brown, whose special election victory boosted GOP hopes this January, has been criticized by conservative pundits, and tea partiers who helped elect him complain they were duped into thinking he is a conservative. The Massachusetts Republican voted with Democrats on financial regulatory reform, though he opposed health care reform as he promised on the campaign trail.

Brown will be running for a full term in two years in what is likely to be one of the most expensive and competitive races of the cycle. He’s already been shoring up his GOP credentials and padding his coffers by stumping across the country for candidates.

While no Democrats have openly admitted an intention to run against Brown, a handful of well-known and well-funded Democratic Congressmen are thought to be in the mix. That includes Reps. Mike Capuano and Stephen Lynch and former Rep. Marty Meehan.

Outside Massachusetts, Democrats think they have two good chances for pickups ‘ Nevada and Arizona. Minority Whip Jon Kyl’s seat seems safe for now, but Democratic strategists said they plan to target the Arizona Republican.

There is also a possibility that Sen. John Ensign, who has faced multiple legal challenges since an affair with an aide went public, might not seek re-election. The Nevada Republican hasn’t raised much money and has had to spend what he had on legal bills, leaving a paltry $280,000 in his campaign account as of Sept. 30. Tuesday’s outcome of the Senate race between Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) and tea party favorite Sharron Angle (R) could be a factor in Ensign’s decision and in which Silver State Democrats step forward to run in 2012.

Rep. Dean Heller (R) is often mentioned as a potential Senate candidate should Ensign retire.

Other possible retirements include 77-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), first elected in 1992, and 75-year-old Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.). Republicans are likely to target the race regardless, especially considering Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) appears likely to fall Tuesday.

A big sign that Kohl will retire is that he had just $26,000 in the bank as of Sept. 30. Rep. Paul Ryan (R) is often mentioned as a potential Senate contender and so is Rep. Ron Kind (D), who now faces a competitive re-election race heading into next week.

Another potential retiree is 86-year-old Sen. Daniel Akaka, who had $76,000 in the bank as of Sept. 30 and has told reporters in Hawaii that he ‘definitely’ plans to run for a fourth term in 2012. Gov. Linda Lingle (R) is leaving office in January, and GOP sources have heard she’s interested in seeking the Senate seat.

Some have speculated that 78-year-old Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) may retire instead of seeking a seventh term, but his office told Roll Call that he’s staffing up and planning to run again in 2012. Lugar, who has a friendly relationship with the White House and a moderate voting record, might be a target for conservatives in a primary.

David Plouffe, who ran the Obama campaign in 2008 and is advising the president and the Democratic National Committee, told reporters recently that Democrats are counting on the tea party pushing Republicans further to the right in a continuation of this year’s trend. ‘If you’re a moderate Republican thinking about running for office in 2011 and 2012, you need to have your head examined,’ he said.

Steve Peoples contributed to this report.

Correction: Nov. 2, 2010

The article incorrectly reported the re-election plans of Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii). Akaka has told reporters in Hawaii that he ‘definitely’ plans to run again in 2012.