Democrats Blue As Senate Acquires a Reddish Tinge
A Commentary by Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik
As we take a fresh look at next year's Senate races, one thing is clear: Barring an unexpected reelection landslide by President Obama, Republicans are at least slightly favored to take the Senate. It's just a basic matter of numbers.
Republicans need to pick up either three or four seats, depending on whether they have the vice president's tie-breaking vote in 2013. North Dakota is all-but-switched to the GOP already. Besides North Dakota, the hardest states for Democrats to hold will be Nebraska, Montana and Missouri, in that order, because it's hard to imagine Obama winning any of those states. Nebraska will probably feature a runaway GOP presidential victory, further damaging Sen. Ben Nelson's (D) chances of reelection.
It's still early, and anything (read: scandals, a changing economy and international events) could happen to alter the basic dynamics of 2012. Yet the Republicans have so many tempting Senate targets that Mitch McConnell (R-KY) could trade "minority" for "majority" in his leadership title quite easily.
Beyond ND, NE, MT and MO, Republicans have decent shots at Virginia, New Mexico and Wisconsin. These three contests appear about even right now. Virginia is likely to have a well-matched race between former governor and senator George Allen (R) and former governor and DNC chairman Tim Kaine. (Allen has to clear a primary hurdle with several Tea Party candidates, but should do so with ease next June.) New Mexico and Wisconsin may tilt Democratic eventually, but right now the contests on both sides are a muddle, and no tentative call can be made. There are also a handful of other states where the GOP could conceivably compete (Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, West Virginia and Hawaii) though at the moment Democratic incumbents or open seat candidates may have the edge.
The only realistic Democratic opportunities to grab GOP seats will come in Massachusetts and Nevada, and right now the GOP incumbents (2010's upset winner Scott Brown and appointed Sen. Dean Heller) would be considered at least slight favorites.
So the math is obvious. The best Democrats can probably do is to retain the Senate by one vote or maybe a tied Senate broken in the Democrats' favor by Vice President Biden if President Obama is reelected. Republicans look likely to gain three seats, and have a fair-to-good chance to pick up four or five. Anything above that could signal a GOP victory in the presidential race, with attendant coattails.
Speaking of coattails, we suspect that the partisan polarization already defining the 2012 election will lead to a large number of contests decided by presidential margins in the various states. In a March 2011 issue of the Crystal Ball we found that, over the past three decades, nearly three of every five truly competitive Senate races, decided by 53% to 47% or less, went the way of the presidential election winner in each state. That proportion may be as high or higher in 2012. Even with massive expenditures by some Senate nominees, it may be becoming more difficult for candidates to separate themselves from their ticket leader. That is one effect of polarization—the phenomenon whereby most voters identify not with individual candidates as much as a party's approach to the issues of the day. It will be fascinating to see how much straight-ticket voting defines the federal elections in November 2012.
Here's our chart, with race-by-race analysis below:
|State||Incumbent||Possible Primary Challengers||Major Party Opposition||Party Rating|
|- Rep. Jeff Flake
- Businessman Doug McKee
|- Rep. Gabrielle Giffords?||Likely R|
|- Ex-Insurance Comm. Steve Poizner?||Safe D|
|- Rep. Chris Murphy
- Ex-Sec. of State Susan Bysiewicz
- State Rep. William Tong
|- 2010 Sen. Nominee Linda McMahon?
- Ex-Rep. Chris Shays?
- Former U.S. Comptroller David Walker?
- Atty Brian Hill
|- Ex-Sen. George LeMieux
– State Sen. Pres. Mike Haridopolos
– Ex-FL House Maj. Leader Adam Hasner
- 2010 Gov. candidate Mike McCalister
- Former Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse CEO Craig Miller
- Businessman Ron Rushing
|- Rep. Mazie Hirono
– Ex-Rep. Ed Case
– Rep. Colleen Hanabusa?
- Ex-Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann?
|- Ex-Gov. Linda Lingle?
– Ex-Rep. Charles Djou?
– Ex-LG Duke Aiona?
|- Treasurer Richard Mourdock||- Rep. Joe Donnelly||Likely R|
|- Rep. Michael Capuano?
- State Rep. Thomas Conroy
- Obama adviser Elizabeth Warren?
- 2009 Sen. candidate Alan Khazei
- Newton Mayor Setti Warren
- Activist Robert Massie
- Immigration Atty Marisa DeFranco
- Ex-state Sen. Warren Tolman?
- Engineer Herb Robinson
|- Ex-Secret Service agent Daniel Bongino||Safe D|
|- Tea Party activist Andrew Ian Dodge
- 2006 ME-2 nominee Scott D’Amboise
|- 2010 Gov. Candidate Rosa Scarcelli?
- Businessman Donato Tramuto?
|- Businessman Tim Leuliette?
- Ex-Judge Randy Hekman
- 2010 MI-15 nominee Rob Steele?
- Businessman Peter Konetchy
- Oakland Co. Water Resources Commis. John McCulloch?
- Activist Chad Dewey
|- Ex-State Rep. Dan Severson||Likely D|
|- Ex-Treasurer Sarah Steelman
– Rep. Todd Akin
- Businessman John Brunner?
|- Rep. Denny Rehberg||Toss up|
|- Ex-state Rep. Pam Gulleson?||- Rep. Rick Berg||Likely R|
|- AG Jon Bruning
– Treasurer Don Stenberg
– 2008 Sen. Candidate Pat Flynn
– State Sen. Deb Fischer?
- Air Force vet Spencer Zimmerman
|- State Sen. Joe Kyrillos
– 2006 nominee/state Senate Min. Leader Tom Kean?
- State Sen. Mike Doherty?
- Biotech executive John Crowley?
- Atty Ian Linker
|- Rep. Martin Heinrich
- Aud. Hector Balderas
- Activist Andres Valdez
|- Ex-Rep. Heather Wilson
- LG John Sanchez
– Businessman Bill English
– 2008 NM-02 Candidate Greg Sowards
|- Rep. Shelley Berkley
- Businessman Byron Georgiou
|- Nassau Co. Comp. George Maragos||Safe D|
|- Treasurer Josh Mandel
– Ex-State Sen. Kevin Coughlin
– 2006 gubernatorial nominee Ken Blackwell?
|- Businessman Keith Loiselle?
– Ex-Santorum aide Marc Scaringi
- Tea Party activist Laureen Cummings
|- Businessman Barry Hinckley||Safe D|
Kay Bailey Hutchison
|- LG David Dewhurst?
- Ex-TX Solicitor General Ted Cruz
- Ex-TX Sec. Of State Roger Williams
- Ex-Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert
- RR Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones
- State Sen. Dan Patrick
|- Ret. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez||Safe R|
|- Rep. Jason Chaffetz?
- State Sen. Dan Liljenquist?
|- Rep. Jim Matheson?||Safe R|
|- Ex-Gov. Tim Kaine
- Marine veteran Courtney Lynch
|- Ex-Sen. George Allen
- Tea Party activist Jamie Radtke
- Atty David McCormick
- Bishop Earl Jackson
- Horizons Television Inc. exec. dir. Tim Donner
|- Auditor Tom Salmon?||Safe D/I|
|- 2009 King Co. exec. candidate Susan Hutchison?||Safe D|
|- Ex-Sen. Russ Feingold?
- U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin?
- U.S. Rep. Ron Kind?
|- Ex-Gov. Tommy Thompson?
- AG J.B. Van Hollen?
- Ex-Rep. Mark Green?
- Ex-Rep. Mark Neumann?
- Businessman Tim Michels?
|- Rep. Shelley Moore Capito?
– 2010 Sen. Nominee John Raese?
Arizona: After the retirement of Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, the most likely Republican contender to replace him has emerged: Rep. Jeff Flake. Flake might face a credible primary challenge because of his past support for comprehensive immigration reform (the same kind of reform that Sen. John McCain once backed and later renounced). However, a potent opponent, fellow Rep. Trent Franks, decided not to run, making Flake the prohibitive favorite to become Arizona's next senator. Democrats are waiting to see if their dream candidate, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, is able to run for this seat. But Giffords is still slowly recovering from an attempt on her life, and it's hard to imagine her actually being able to make this race. One point in Arizona Democrats' favor is this: President Obama's campaign team believes he would have competed for Arizona had native son McCain not been the GOP nominee in 2008. The Obama camp might contest Arizona this time around, and that campaign infrastructure could only boost the Democrats' now-slim chances of picking up this Republican seat. LIKELY REPUBLICAN
California: Sen. Dianne Feinstein appears to be running, although in this year of Democratic retirements she seems to be about the only older Democrat up for reelection who isn't bailing (Feinstein will be 79 next year). That said, Feinstein -- or another Democrat -- will be a heavy favorite in this race. It's amazing that the state that helped send Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to the White House is now essentially impossible territory for Republicans at the presidential and Senate level. Yet with its highly diverse electorate, California is exactly that, as the state's gubernatorial and Senate races showed last November. SAFE DEMOCRATIC
Connecticut: The race to replace Joe Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-independent whose Democratic primary loss in 2006 was the left's version of a Tea Party-esque scalping, is clearly the Democrats to lose. The party is sure to field a strong candidate, most likely Rep. Chris Murphy. Several names are floating around on the Republican side, including ex-Rep. Chris Shays, former U.S. Comptroller David Walker and especially wrestling business zillionaire Linda McMahon, whose big-spending campaign in 2010 didn't help her against now-Sen. Richard Blumenthal. Other than the fact that the Nutmeg State is now decidedly Blue, the problem with most of the GOP possibilities is that they are coming off losses. It is also difficult to imagine Connecticut voters sending a Republican to the Senate while they are giving a healthy majority of their votes to President Obama. So we rank this a likely Democratic seat, up from a lean Democratic seat in our last rating. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC
Delaware: Delaware's own Joe Biden, the vice president, made some headlines recently by discussing his presidential chances -- in 2016. Delaware political watchers will have to look for Biden to continue making news, because the Senate race there is not likely to make any. Incumbent Democrat Tom Carper is as safe as safe can be at this point. SAFE DEMOCRATIC
Florida: Three major Republicans are seeking to challenge Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson: George LeMieux, who served the remainder of former Sen. Mel Martinez's term during the last Congress; Mike Haridopolos, the state Senate president; and Adam Hasner, the former state House majority leader. This primary may or may not be a bloodbath, but it's not at all clear that any of them will seriously threaten Nelson, who in a recent Quinnipiac poll was shown leading all three of the Republicans by 20 points or more. The same poll also showed President Obama's approval at 51%. It's fair to say that if Obama wins Florida -- very much an open question right now -- Nelson should be fine, and the incumbent senator could keep the seat even if the Republican presidential candidate wins the Sunshine State by a small margin. This contest may be a test of the coattail theory of presidential-Senate races in a polarized era. For now, LEANS DEMOCRATIC
Hawaii: Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka is retiring, and considering Hawaii hasn't elected a new senator since 1990, many politicians are eyeing the seat—most of them Democrats, since they dominate the Aloha State. Former Rep. Ed Case (D) is in, and so is current Rep. Mazie Hirono (D). Other Democrats may join them, including Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and ex-Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann. Former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle would be the strongest Republican challenger, although even if she's lucky – a clear path to the nomination, a bruising Democratic primary – Obama probably will win more than two of every three presidential votes in his home state next year. Lingle cannot be easily discounted -- and she won't decide until August -- but it is hard to see Hawaiians splitting their tickets dramatically for any Republican in 2012. LEANS DEMOCRATIC
Indiana: Republican Sen. Richard Lugar is almost certain to win reelection next November – if he is his party's nominee, that is. And there's the rub. State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, claiming widespread support from both the Tea Party and the party base, is challenging Lugar. Although it's too early to tell for sure what will happen, there are many warning flags flying about Lugar. Senior GOP operatives have reported to us that Lugar is now a distant figure to many party voters; the suggestion is that he has not kept the home fires burning and is perceived more as a Washington figure than a Hoosier. That kind of image is always a danger sign. Lugar will also be 80 in 2012, though he is in superb physical and mental shape. Rep. Joe Donnelly (D), whose seat was made more Republican after congressional redistricting in Indiana, is the likely Democratic nominee. Whichever way the Lugar/Mourdock race goes, the Republican nominee is very likely to win this seat. Donnelly is already at a disadvantage in this right-leaning state, and it appears that the Obama campaign is likely to concede the Hoosier State to the Republican presidential nominee despite winning it narrowly in 2008. Indiana's going Democratic for Obama was perhaps something of a fluke in an unusual year. LIKELY REPUBLICAN
Massachusetts: Democrats in Massachusetts seem to think they have a good chance of knocking off an opposing incumbent, Republican Sen. Scott Brown. Brown's upset victory in the January 2010 election to replace the late Ted Kennedy sent shockwaves through American politics. The difference between then and now is that a Brown victory in 2012 would not be surprising at all; indeed, he's the favorite. In addition to Brown's personal popularity, Bay Staters, despite their Democratic tilt, might want some Republican representation to balance the state. As of now, every U.S. House representative and statewide elected official is a Democrat, and Democrats control the state legislature overwhelmingly. As our chart indicates, there are many potential Democratic candidates, and because the state is losing a House seat in redistricting, it would make sense for a sitting House representative, such as Michael Capuano, to take on Brown. Brown has not performed perfectly -- he flip-flopped on Paul Ryan's budget plan and the Medicare changes in it (first saying he would vote for it and then voting against it) and he claimed to have seen photos of the dead Osama bin Laden when he clearly didn't. Despite these unforced errors, Brown remains quite popular. He has voted moderately in a fair number of prominent cases, as one would expect from a Republican that wants to survive in a liberal state. His book discussing his life (including sexual and physical abuse as a child) was a media hit. While Obama coattails could always upend him in the end, for now Brown is the clear favorite. LEANS REPUBLICAN
Maryland: Brian Murphy, a 2010 candidate for governor who is now chairing the Republican Senate campaign of ex-Secret Service agent Daniel Bongino, told the Baltimore Sun, "There's no question (Democratic Sen. Ben) Cardin's beatable." There isn't the slightest evidence of that. SAFE DEMOCRATIC
Maine: Moderate Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe is on the Tea Party's hit list, and in the unlikely event that she is knocked off in a primary (by activist Andrew Ian Dodge or businessman Scott D'Amboise), Democrats may have a chance to grab the seat. Yet Democrats do not have a strong candidate at this point, and Snowe has garnered enthusiastic backing from Tea Party Gov. Paul LePage. LIKELY REPUBLICAN
Michigan: Obviously, Democrats have a lot of territory to defend in 2012, whereas Republicans have a lot of room to play offense and have recruited good candidates in most places. That is not true in Michigan. Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow might have had some vulnerability to the right challenger, but he or she is nowhere to be found, apparently. Stabenow is now likely to win a return ticket to the Senate. (We previously had this race as Leans D.) Potentially strong Republican candidates, such as ex-Rep. Pete Hoekstra, former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land and members of the state's House delegation, are all taking a pass, leaving second-tier candidates to duke it out. While Michigan, like so many other Midwestern states, took a right turn in 2010, there may be some snap-back in 2012 in the Democratic direction. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC
Minnesota: Of all her Midwestern Democratic Senate caucus colleagues up for reelection this cycle, Amy Klobuchar appears to be the safest. Republicans may have a decent candidate to run against her, 2010 secretary of state candidate and former state Rep. Dan Severson, but Klobuchar has proven to be very popular. Her break-out came while the other Senate seat was in dispute for a half a year in 2009, as incumbent Norm Coleman (R) and eventual winner Al Franken (D) fought tooth and nail. As the state's only senator, Klobuchar handled her duties with aplomb and good humor. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC
Missouri: Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill has had a tough year. In March she was forced to pay back taxes on trips she had taken on her private plane. A narrow winner in 2006, McCaskill was already in deep trouble for 2012. John McCain narrowly won Missouri, but the state seems to have become Redder since then, and Obama is not especially popular there. (Maybe his visit to comfort the Joplin tornado survivors will help.) To get reelected, McCaskill must depend on an Obama recovery and a split GOP, and maybe a likely strong reelection showing by Gov. Jay Nixon (D). The Republican primary field is pretty well set: Rep. Todd Akin entered the race after it became clear that the early front-runner, former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, wasn't performing up to expectations in fundraising and enthusiasm. Wealthy businessman John Brunner, who will try to replicate the wins produced by other outsiders in recent Republican primaries around the nation, is apparently running. Missouri gives us one of the 2012 contests involving a Democratic incumbent where Republicans have a fair to good chance of an upset. TOSS UP
Mississippi: There are rumblings of a Tea Party primary challenge to Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, but few take it seriously. Wicker is deeply conservative, which fits the Magnolia State well. His road to a first full term appears unobstructed. SAFE REPUBLICAN
Montana: Democrat Jon Tester's victory over Republican Conrad Burns was one of the more unlikely keys to the Democrats' capture of the Senate in 2006. Now, Tester faces a stern challenge from popular Rep. Denny Rehberg (R). Some on the left became disillusioned when Tester opposed the DREAM Act, designed to help immigrant children gain access to higher education. But Tester's real problem is that Big Sky country is very likely to vote for the GOP presidential nominee by a wide margin—as long as Republicans nominate a mainstream candidate. A recent Public Policy Polling survey showed Tester with a decent 51% approval rating, and yet he trailed Rehberg 47%-45%. Still, Tester has populist appeal and Montanans know how to split tickets, so this should be one of the better Senate shows next year. Montana is a cheap media state, so both parties and every interest group known to man and woman will have TV ads playing here. Fortunately for them, Montanans spend a lot of time out of doors. TOSS UP
North Dakota: This is the Republicans' easiest potential pickup, and with the primary field effectively cleared for newly elected Republican Rep. Rick Berg, we fully expect him to replace retiring Democrat Kent Conrad in the Senate. Considering all senators who have held office in the past half-century, Berg would be just the 10th person to win a Senate seat immediately after winning a first term in the House. Berg is a very lucky politician. LIKELY REPUBLICAN
Nebraska: Other than North Dakota, Nebraska gives the Republicans their lowest-hanging fruit of 2012. The Cornhusker State is deeply Red, and despite an overall moderate record and a successful career of bucking his state's GOP tilt, Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson is in a world of trouble. His position has been compared by some to that of former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), who never seemed to have much of a chance at reelection in 2010, and lost overwhelmingly in November. Nelson isn't in Lincoln territory yet, but our designation of this race as a toss-up may be too generous to him: He is the most endangered incumbent Senate Democrat in the country. Attorney General Jon Bruning is the favorite in the GOP primary, but Treasurer Don Stenberg and others are also in the race, and they are attacking Bruning for liberal columns he wrote as a law student when he was in his 20s. If Bruning can emerge healthy from his party battle, Nelson will have a hard time catching up. Adding to Nelson's woes is the fact that Nebraska's congressional redistricting makes it highly unlikely President Obama will repeat his feat of carrying the state's Second Congressional District. (The Second's Democratic population is diluted with the addition of more Republicans.) Without the lure of an electoral vote, the Obama campaign isn't going to waste resources here -- money that would have indirectly aided Nelson's cause. TOSS UP
New Jersey: Democrat Bob Menendez isn't the most popular senator around, but with President Obama at the top of the ticket in this Democratic stronghold, he appears to be relatively safe. However, Republicans might have a couple of candidates worth watching: State Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, a close ally of Gov. Chris Christie, and biotech executive John Crowley. The GOP is under no illusions about how difficult it is to win in a presidential year, though. LEANS DEMOCRATIC
New Mexico: The decision by Democratic incumbent Jeff Bingaman to hang up his spurs rather than pursue another term means the Democrats have yet another competitive seat to defend. There should be spirited primaries, with Rep. Martin Heinrich facing Auditor Hector Balderas on the Democratic side and ex-Rep. Heather Wilson facing Lt. Gov. John Sanchez for the Republican nomination. This is a toss-up, although considering that close to half of all New Mexicans are Hispanic and that President Obama will be the favorite in the Land of Enchantment, the Democratic nominee may have an edge if the party's primary doesn't get out of hand. The moderate Wilson would be the stronger Republican nominee, but she would be far better off without the Sanchez/Tea Party challenge. While the favorite to be the party nominee, Wilson isn't assured that designation. In 2008 she lost a Senate primary to Rep. Steve Pearce, who then lost by a mile to Democratic Sen. Tom Udall in the general election. Wilson's dilemma is that conservatives just don't like her record. For example, Erick Erickson, the influential "Red State" conservative blogger, said recently that, "The number one goal of conservatives in 2012, other than defeating Barack Obama, has got to be defeating Heather Wilson in New Mexico." On the other hand, there is no question that national Republican leaders as well as new Gov. Susana Martinez (R) much prefer Wilson. TOSS UP
Nevada: Republicans got a boost when disgraced Sen. John Ensign resigned his seat, allowing Gov. Brian Sandoval to appoint fellow Republican Dean Heller, a House member. Incumbency is an advantage, and so we slightly favor Heller as he attempts to keep his new prize. However, Nevada is a key battleground for Obama, and the president will campaign and spend extensively here. A secondary beneficiary will be the likely Democratic candidate, Rep. Shelley Berkley. A Heller-Berkley matchup would pit a man who represented most of the state's surface area in the House (the north and central parts of the state) versus a woman who represented much of its population concentration in Las Vegas. Also, Heller, as a member of both the House and the Senate in this Congress, voted twice for Paul Ryan's budget and its controversial changes to Medicare. If it continues to be a sizable liability, anything close to what we saw in the recent special House election in New York's 26th district, it could be Heller's undoing next year. For now, though, we give Heller the slight edge, in part because of his incumbency and also because Berkley will probably have a potentially draining contested primary with a rich businessman, Byron Georgiou. LEANS REPUBLICAN
New York: The hapless New York Republican Party had its chance to knock off appointed Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in 2010. In a year in which Republicans in New York picked up six House seats, Gillibrand coasted to victory with 63% of the vote. She appears to be a cinch to win a full term next year. SAFE DEMOCRATIC
Ohio: Republicans mopped the floor with Democrats in Ohio in 2010, but so far they have not produced a sure-fire challenger to potentially vulnerable Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown. For instance, seasoned campaigners such as GOP Reps. Steve LaTourette and Jim Jordan are taking a pass on the race. State Treasurer Josh Mandel, a likely candidate, has a potentially bright future but is quite young (33), and he just won his first statewide race last year. Still, at first blush, Mandel has nothing to lose in running. Unlike other states, a loss in Ohio is often seen as a badge of honor for future races, and many prominent Ohio political figures, including Brown, have lost statewide contests before. Moreover, Mandel is running from safety. He'll have an elected office in 2013 no matter what, either in Washington or in Columbus. On the other hand, Mandel could lose a great deal of prestige if he loses the GOP primary to ex-Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell, who is making noises about a candidacy. Blackwell is very conservative, so he could win the primary. If Mandel loses to Blackwell -- who in 2006 was a disastrous candidate defeated in a landslide -- his promising political future could be ended. Our assessment is that, right now, Brown is at least a slight favorite over Mandel, and he's one of the safest incumbents in the country if he ends up facing Blackwell, whatever the results of the presidential contest in the Buckeye State. If Obama ends up losing Ohio, though, Mandel could be one of the night's upset winners. LEANS DEMOCRATIC
Pennsylvania: The Keystone State is another place where Republican hopes are fading against a first-term Democratic incumbent, Bob Casey. As in Michigan and Ohio, members of the Republican U.S. House delegation apparently have taken a pass. More important, Casey has a golden political name thanks to his father's two popular terms as governor. Casey starts the 2012 campaign in very good shape, and even if Obama -- whose approval ratings are middling in Pennsylvania -- doesn't perform well at the top of the ticket (that may change), Casey should be all right. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC
Rhode Island: The 2006 first-time victor, Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, should have no trouble winning a second term. SAFE DEMOCRATIC
Tennessee: Sen. Bob Corker is another Republican who has aggravated certain Tea Party conservatives, but he doesn't appear to have a credible challenger in either the primary or general election. Former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen could give Corker a tough fight, but he's apparently not running. Corker looks safe in the Red and getting Redder Volunteer State. SAFE REPUBLICAN
Texas: The Democrats have recruited a candidate to compete for retiring Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's seat, retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who left the army after the Abu Ghraib scandal but was cleared of any wrongdoing. Texas is changing demographically, but this is still Republican territory, and so the more interesting piece of this puzzle is on the Republican side, where several heavyweights are vying for the nomination. Leading the pack is wealthy and popular Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. But Dewhurst is also in his mid-60s; would he really be a two-termer or more in the Senate? There are rumblings that Dewhurst is considering a bid for governor in 2014 instead, assuming Governor-for-life Rick Perry (R) actually steps down -- maybe after a presidential run. Just imagine how this contest will be re-shaped if Perry becomes the GOP nominee for president and wins the White House, passing the statehouse to Dewhurst (just as George W. Bush made Perry governor in 2000). Dewhurst would no doubt then run for election as governor in 2014 instead, with other Republicans coming to the forefront for Senate. The rest of the GOP field for this rare open seat prize is also formidable in various ways: Ex-Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz got the nod of approval from the Club for Growth and also conservative columnist George Will recently, for instance. It is difficult to predict which candidate other than Dewhurst, if he runs, will reach the inevitable Senate runoff that will follow the first primary. What isn't difficult to predict is that, Democratic bravado aside, the seat's new occupant will be a Republican. SAFE REPUBLICAN
Utah: Like his involuntarily retired former Senate colleague, Republican Robert Bennett, longtime Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch may also face a Tea Party challenge. Bennett was knocked out in a party convention: He didn't even finish in the top two there, which would have allowed him to face primary voters. Utah Republicans might think twice about getting rid of another powerful, senior senator, but in the Tea Party era it's hard to say how this will shake out. Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah's heavily Republican Third district would be a formidable challenger for Hatch, and Dick Armey's Tea Party PAC, FreedomWorks, has started a "Retire Orrin Hatch" campaign. Chaffetz has not yet signaled his intentions. Hatch is working far harder, far earlier than Bennett did to hold his seat. Polls show that there is "Hatch fatigue" after his 36 years in the Senate, and Hatch is in a tied contest with both Chaffetz in a primary and Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson in a general election. The latter may be a mirage. The GOP presidential nominee will win Utah with somewhere around 70% of the vote, and that kind of margin will probably elect any Republican Senate nominee, even one installed after a divisive intra-party battle. SAFE REPUBLICAN
U.Va. Center for Politics director Larry Sabato does not rate Utah races that involve members of the Matheson family; these ratings are left to other members of the Crystal Ball team. Sabato and the Mathesons have been close friends for 36 years, pre-dating the political careers of U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT) and 2004 gubernatorial candidate Scott Matheson (D), now a United States appellate judge. In his only federal political donations ever, Sabato gave $500 to Jim Matheson on May 21, 1999, and donated two separate $500 (total $1,000) gifts to Scott Matheson on Aug. 18, 2003 and Sept. 9, 2004. This disclosure is in accordance with Crystal Ball policy.
Virginia: Maybe you could call it "Once Upon a Time in the Commonwealth," because the marquee Senate race in the Commonwealth of Virginia is the political version of a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. While the script is littered with extras -- a Leone specialty -- at the heart of this story are two political giants in a tug-of-war. The likely Republican nominee is George Allen, ex-governor, ex-senator and ex-presidential contender, brought low by his unexpected defeat to retiring Democratic Sen. Jim Webb in 2006. Allen seeks redemption after his "macaca" embarrassment, and this 2012 campaign has the feel of an effort to reclaim his lost honor and his place on center stage. Meanwhile, the likely Democratic nominee, Tim Kaine, has won two statewide races, for lieutenant governor in 2001 and governor in 2005, and made his political fortune by picking the right horse, Barack Obama, early in the 2008 campaign. Yet Kaine never dominated Virginia's politics in his decade (the 21st century's first) the way Allen did his, the 1990s. Kaine is all but guaranteed the Democratic nod -- assuming African-American Rep. Bobby Scott stays out, as is thought likely. Allen has a bigger fight on his hands, though the outcome should be the same. While Allen has multiple challengers for the GOP nomination, it is hard to see how one could threaten him in the June 2012 primary. If nothing else, the several Tea Party conservatives are dividing up whatever voters are disillusioned with Allen. Listening to Republicans, there is no longer the kind of enthusiasm there once was for Allen, who has the burden of six years' worth of Senate votes to defend. (To the Tea Party, his repeated support for bloated budgets, higher debt limits and unpaid-for medical benefits make Allen undesirable.) As for Kaine, his once moderate image has been transformed by service as Obama's Democratic National Committee chairman, and he is rapidly trying to shed the liberal vestiges of that, if possible to do. This race is a total toss-up at this point and, perhaps in a cinematic twist, the dramatic ending of this film might be decided not by these two gunslingers, but instead by others: namely, Obama and his Republican opponent. It's hard to see either Kaine or Allen winning this duel without help at the top of the ticket. Allen privately hopes that popular Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) ends up as the GOP vice presidential nominee. That could change the calculus in the presidential battle for Virginia's 13 electoral votes -- and thus in the Senate contest. TOSS UP
Vermont: Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders will be able to continue to caucus with Democrats after 2012, as he faces no serious threats. Republican Auditor Tom Salmon is considering running for Senate or governor, but he'd be a huge underdog in either race. SAFE INDEPENDENT/DEMOCRATIC
Washington: The action in the Evergreen State is in the governor's race, which means that Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell will likely skate to yet another reelection. President Obama is the favorite once again to sweep the "other" Washington's electoral votes, which only helps Cantwell. SAFE DEMOCRATIC
Wisconsin: The Badger State could very well be a main focus of the political universe next year, just as it has been this year thanks to a high-profile battle over a bill restricting the rights of public sector unions. Even a state Supreme Court race in Wisconsin got outsized attention earlier this year, and nine ongoing recall elections for the state Senate are being followed nationally as though they were battles for the U.S. Senate. In 2012 Wisconsin will be a key presidential swing state, and it is conceivable (though not likely) that the new governor, Scott Walker, may face a recall election. More important for our purposes here, Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl is a surprise retiree, setting up a competitive contest to replace him. Ex-Sen. Russ Feingold has the right of first refusal on the Democratic side, although there is some question as to whether he wants to run another tough race in the immediate aftermath of his loss to Republican Sen. Ron Johnson last year. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, an openly gay liberal, and Rep. Ron Kind, more of a centrist, are next in line for the Democratic nomination. Ex-Gov. Tommy Thompson is considering running on the Republican side, with ex-Rep. Mark Neumann or Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen as other possibilities. Thompson is famous for dipping his toes in the water and then not jumping in, so we'll see whether he actually declares a candidacy. The former governor is also discovering that Tea Party conservatives have little love for him. Despite that, Thompson would be the initial favorite for the Republican nomination, just as Feingold would be on the Democratic side. A Feingold-Thompson match-up would be a war between heavyweights and unpredictable. So are some of the lesser match-ups at this point. Wisconsin is a state in political turmoil a year before the election, so we'll be patient in seeing how the race develops. TOSS UP
West Virginia: We get the sense that Republicans had their best shot at Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in last year's special election to replace the late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd. Even though West Virginia will go heavily for Barack Obama's Republican opponent next year, Manchin, the former governor, is well regarded in Mountaineer country. That said, any trace of outright liberalism -- such as his vote to confirm failed Obama appellate court nominee Goodwin Liu -- raises eyebrows back home. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito would be the strongest challenger to Manchin, which is a reason why Democrats in the state legislature might think twice about toying with her House district during redistricting. LEANS DEMOCRATIC
Wyoming: Another snoozer: Republican Sen. John Barrasso is a cinch for reelection. SAFE REPUBLICAN
Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
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