Webb Underscores Democrats’ 2012 Challenge

by Stuart Rothenberg February 11, 2011 · 2:19 PM EST

Note: This column appeared in Roll Call before Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl announced his retirement.

Spring training hasn’t even started for the 2011 baseball season, but it’s 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 “in play” throughout the cycle, since additional retirements, new recruits or a changed political environment could alter the GOP’s prospects.

Still, the fact that control of the Senate now looks to be up for grabs next year shouldn’t 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 — Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) — don’t 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 Conrad’s 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 Webb’s 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 he’s 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 — during which the less charismatic Stenberg undoubtedly would try to paint the more outspoken Bruning as insufficiently conservative — 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 Tester’s 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.

Former Missouri Treasurer Sarah Steelman is already in the GOP race against Sen. Claire McCaskill (D), but others could join her.

Beyond those contests, Republican prospects range from interesting, against Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.), to worth watching, against Sens. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) and Herb Kohl (Wis.).

On the other side of the aisle, two Republican Senators up next year stand out as potentially vulnerable: Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.) and John Ensign (Nev.).

Even with the good ink that he has received, Brown has to be regarded as extremely vulnerable, if only because of his party.

Any Republican holding a federal office in the Bay State is at risk — and Brown in particular since he was elected in a special election. The 2012 electorate will be different from the one that turned out in January 2010, and the presence of Obama on the ballot could both boost Democratic turnout and make the entire election more partisan.

Ensign’s problems stem from his affair with a former staffer, and he could either draw a formidable primary opponent or even decide against continuing his bid for re-election. On the Democratic side, Rep. Shelley Berkley is most often mentioned as a candidate. While she has had no trouble holding her Las Vegas-based, reliably Democratic district, she would not necessarily have such strong statewide appeal.

Beyond those two GOP vulnerabilities, the only obvious Democratic targets are those states where strong incumbent Republicans could face difficult primary challenges from much more conservative opponents. Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Dick Lugar (Ind.) are obvious examples, though at this point no serious Democrat has come forward in either race.

There are already enough Democratic seats at risk to regard control of the Senate in 2012 as up for grabs. But we aren’t likely to know until at least the end of this year how the cycle is likely to play out, and as is usually the case, unexpected events are likely to play a role in the Democrats’ chances of hanging into their Senate majority.