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Initial Rating For All 2012 Senate Seats

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato

Over the next four weeks, the Crystal Ball is going to roll out its very first look at the 2012 contests for Senate, Governor, House, and President.

It is ridiculously early, of course. Any analyst who would call these ratings “predictions” should just open up a palm-reading service.

Instead, we choose to call them descriptive short-term forecasts. A thousand things will change along the way to November 2012. Candidates will drop in and out. Scandals will emerge. Terrorism may rear its nasty head. Other major issues will arise. And most of all, the economy will get better, stay the same, get worse, or get better and then worse, or… The headaches are starting.

But we believe that it is useful to set up a framework for analysis and comparison right at the start of the election cycle, if only to trace how drastically conditions mutate.

Finally, we know our readers are busy. You don’t have endless hours to read lengthy essays about every campaign. So we’ve decided to boil it all down into some straightforward categories, with a series of charts we will alter and re-print with some frequency as events dictate. In a glance you can see which contests are competitive at the moment. We are sacrificing subtlety and detail for simplicity and efficiency.

Our first installment is for the 33 Senate seats up in 2012. Primary and general election challengers (as currently guessed) are listed for each incumbent. Then we rate each race twice, asking these questions:

  1. Overall, how vulnerable is the incumbent likely to be either in a party primary or the general election? There are four ratings, top to bottom: Safe for now, Very vulnerable, Vulnerable, or Potentially vulnerable (under conditions we outline). Two years in advance, we refuse to call anyone absolutely safe.
  2. Overall, given the incumbent’s level of strength and the state’s partisan leanings, can we tentatively classify the seat as Solid D or R, Leans D or R, or Toss-Up?

The Senate class of 2012 is substantially Democratic, with Democrats holding 23 seats to the Republicans’ 10. Obviously, this gives Republicans a leg up in contesting seats. The GOP has a small number to defend, while Democrats will have to cover a broad map, and depend on President Obama for long coattails.

As the chart shows, there are seven toss-ups at the moment, six of them Democratic: Joe Lieberman (D-CT), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Jon Tester (D-MT), Ben Nelson (D-NE), John Ensign (R-NV), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Jim Webb (D-VA). All seven are either in the “very vulnerable” or “vulnerable” categories.

There are eight seats currently leaning to one or the other party. Six are Democratic and two are Republican. Of the eight, the seat of Scott Brown (R-MA) may be the most endangered, initially—although we believe some are underestimating his ability to win a full term despite the state’s heavily Democratic tilt.

The remaining 18 seats are “likely” or “solid” for the eleven Democrats and seven Republicans who occupy them.

Depending on the party identity of the Vice President elected in 2012, Republicans will need to win a net three or four Senate seats from the Democrats to take control of the upper chamber of Congress. With six Democratic toss-ups to just one Republican toss-up, the GOP can obviously win the Senate in theory—but it is far too soon to say whether theory will become reality. Just remember how many Senate surprises there were in the primaries and general election of 2010.

Senate Ratings


Incumbents are listed as either running, retiring, or uncertain at this time. The designation “uncertain” does not mean that the incumbent will necessarily retire.

Arizona: There have been rumors that Sen. Kyl will retire in 2012, but they are unconfirmed. If he runs, he will be a heavy favorite against any Democrat. Defeated Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords has been mentioned as a possible opponent for Kyl or as a candidate for an open seat.

California: At age 79 in 2012, Sen. Dianne Feinstein may or may not retire. If she runs again, she is the automatic favorite. Wealthy Congressman Darrell Issa is thought to have some interest in running against Feinstein or for an open seat though Issa may like his new position as Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform so much that he stays in the House. California is now so Democratic that it will be exceptionally difficult for any Republican to win a Senate seat here, especially in a presidential year when Pres. Obama will be the overwhelming favorite to carry the Golden State again.

Connecticut: No one knows if Sen. Joseph Lieberman will run again or retire. If he seeks another term, he will have great difficulty. Despite his championship of “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, Lieberman is still enormously unpopular in the Democratic Party. Having lost the Democratic nomination in 2006, he is very unlikely to win it this time against any well-known officeholder. That leaves Lieberman with the choice of an independent candidacy or a Republican one. Republicans agree with Lieberman on international issues but not domestic ones, for the most part, so it is not clear that the GOP would adopt Lieberman. That leaves another independent candidacy, perhaps. Surely, some of Lieberman’s family and advisers are suggesting that he would be better off hanging up his hat than undertaking a difficult campaign that could easily result in defeat. Connecticut has become increasingly Democratic, and Republican Senate nominee Linda McMahon discovered this in 2010. McMahon spent a fortune but lost decisively to now-Sen. Richard Blumenthal. Nonetheless, the very rich McMahon appears to be considering a second Senate candidacy.

Delaware: Sen. Tom Carper is a shoo-in for reelection in this deeply Blue state. The Delaware Republican Party is barely functional after the disastrous candidacy of 2010 Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell sunk the GOP ticket.

Florida: This will be one of the most interesting Senate races of 2012. Few politicians are ever fully secure in this mega-state, and even though Sen. Bill Nelson has had a great run politically, he has to be concerned about the strong Republican statewide trend in Florida on election day 2010. Nelson is a tested incumbent with a moderate image, and should be considered the favorite for the moment. Privately, however, even Democrats in the Sunshine State admit that he could be vulnerable if President Obama does not recover fully enough to carry Florida again in 2012. Appointed former Sen. George LeMieux, who left office at the beginning of 2011, is ambitious to win a term of his own. Republicans remember that he was the choice of former Gov. Charlie Crist, and their dislike of Crist may have some carryover for LeMieux. Other GOP candidates are starting to surface, too, including state Senate President Mike Haridopolos, Congressman Connie Mack IV (whose father was a U.S. senator from Florida), and possibly wealthy Congressman Vern Buchanan and new Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, an African-American. Without question, Florida Republicans would rather have former Gov. Jeb Bush as their nominee, but there are no signs yet that he is interested.

Hawaii: Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka is 86 years old, but this is Hawaii where respect for senior politicians is part of cultural tradition. Many observers believe that Akaka will retire, but there has been no official word on this yet. The Republicans will have a strong candidate in former Gov. Linda Lingle, if she chooses to run. Lingle has indicated that she will at least consider it. If Akaka retires, the Democratic bench is very strong, and any Democrat will benefit from the massive percentage of the vote that President Obama will undoubtedly secure in his native state.

Indiana: Sen. Richard Lugar has been secure in office since his first election in 1976, so one might assume that he will skate to reelection in 2012. But things are not necessarily so easy for him anymore. Once considered a solid conservative, Lugar is now thought of as moderate or even liberal by some conservative Republicans and Tea Party activists. Lugar is an internationalist and has a strong bipartisan streak. As a result, he may well be challenged by someone from the Tea Party in the GOP primary. Many names are being bandied about, and it is too early to say whether a challenge will really develop, although the early indications are that it will. In the general election Democrats like Congressman Joe Donnelly and former Congressman Brad Ellsworth, who lost the 2010 Senate election to Sen. Dan Coats, may throw their hats in the ring if they perceive that Lugar will be weakened or defeated in his party primary. Nonetheless, it will take a lot to oust Lugar at any point in 2012.

Massachusetts: The nation received one of its great political shocks in February 2010 when Republican Scott Brown was elected to fill the unexpired term of Sen. Ted Kennedy. Given the heavily Democratic nature of the Bay State, and the very Democratic results of the 2010 November elections there, Democrats are salivating at the prospect of taking Brown out when he comes up for a full six-year term in 2012. It is not yet clear which Democrats may try to secure the party nomination to oppose Brown. In addition, Brown has voted a moderate line on many issues, aggravating the Tea Party activists who got him elected to begin with. Despite all of these troubles, though, we believe that Brown will be stronger than many anticipate. Still, it won’t be easy for Brown, and if 2012 is a big Democratic year, he could be vulnerable.

Maryland: Sen. Ben Cardin is a heavy favorite for a second term. He is a low-profile senator but has alienated few in his own party. Republicans are a spent force in Maryland.

Maine: Sen. Olympia Snowe is perhaps the premier moderate Republican in the upper chamber of Congress, and as a consequence, she always has to be worried about a primary challenge from the right. Recently, though, Snowe was given a big boost when the new Tea Party Republican governor of Maine, Paul LePage, endorsed her for reelection. Her primary must be monitored closely, regardless. Snowe is probably unbeatable in the fall by a Democrat.

Michigan: Democrats have long regarded Michigan as a party stronghold, but the GOP nominee for governor, Rick Snyder, scored a landslide win for governor in 2010, and Republicans did well in other elections there. As the only state to lose population between 2000 and 2010, Michigan is desperate for economic solutions, and the voters may be open to any candidate who can convince them that he or she has the answers. Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow starts out as the frontrunner to win her third term, but she is not unassailable. Some strong Republicans have indicated interest in the race, and we will have to see whether any of them actually take the plunge.

Minnesota: Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a first-term Democrat, is considered a strong favorite for reelection. Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, a tea party favorite, has been mentioned as a potential opponent, though she does not appear to have made a decision to run as of yet and is even toying with a presidential candidacy. Klobuchar left a positive impression when she accepted with good humor the reality that she was the state’s only U.S. senator during the seemingly interminable recount of the 2008 contest between Democrat Al Franken (who eventually won) and then-Republican Sen. Norm Coleman.

Missouri: This will be a barn-burner of a contest. Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill narrowly edged out Republican Sen. Jim Talent in the Democratic tilting year of 2006. Since 2008, when President Obama came within a whisker of carrying the Show Me State, Missouri has moved back toward the Republican camp, at least temporarily. McCaskill will be opposed by either Talent, who gives every indication of desiring a rematch, or former state treasurer Sarah Steelman. McCaskill has been a visible, forceful senator but she may be too liberal for Missouri, unless President Obama recovers strongly prior to November 2012. In any event, McCaskill is quite vulnerable.

Mississippi: There has been some talk of a Tea Party challenge to Republican Sen. Roger Wicker in the GOP primary, but Wicker is deeply conservative and could be expected to turn that back. While there are Democrats who might run a credible race against Wicker, such as former Congressman Gene Taylor, it is hard to believe that a Democrat could win a major statewide race in Mississippi during the era of Obama.

Montana: It was always going to be a difficult reelection for freshman Sen. Jon Tester. After all, he is a Democrat in a substantially Republican state, and was just barely elected over GOP Sen. Conrad Burns in 2006. But now Tester, always a liberal favorite, has alienated the Democratic left by voting against the DREAM Act, which would have granted legal status to some younger illegal immigrants who had arrived in the United States illegally as minors. Adding to Tester’s woes is the fact that President Obama is very unlikely to carry Montana, or even to come within a few points of doing so as he did in 2008. The most likely Republican nominee is Congressman Denny Rehberg who is popular and has won repeatedly. He may be better known than Tester since Rehberg also runs statewide, and geographic giant Montana has just one U.S. representative. There is little question that Tester is very vulnerable and that this race is and will remain a tossup.

North Dakota: Assuming Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad seeks reelection, he will be at least a narrow favorite for another term. That is true even though North Dakota is heavily Republican and has just elected Republicans to fill formerly Democratic seats in the Senate and House. As a small state, North Dakota understands the importance of having some representation in each party’s caucus. In addition, Conrad has maintained high popularity throughout his long stint in public office. The obvious key to the level of competitiveness is the selection of the GOP nominee, and it is simply too soon to know for sure who might run. Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk, who is elected statewide, has made noises about a candidacy, and state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem is another possibility. Less likely, but in the mix, is new Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who succeeded Gov. John Hoeven after he was elected to the other North Dakota Senate seat in 2010—the one vacated by the retiring Byron Dorgan (D). Interestingly, Dalrymple has run against Conrad unsuccessfully already, for the Senate in 1992. Dalrymple’s new lieutenant governor, former U.S. attorney Drew Wrigley, is a final GOP possibility.

Nebraska: Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson appears to be running for reelection, and if so, he is headed for a very rocky road. Barely elected in 2000 but more easily reelected in 2006, Nelson represents a dyed in the wool Republican state. Only personal popularity has enabled him to maintain a solid electoral record: two terms as governor and two terms in the Senate, with one defeat for Senate in the 1990s. However, President Obama is deeply unpopular in the Cornhusker State and Nelson has supported a good bit of the Obama agenda, while also opposing pieces of the administration’s program. Obama’s health care reform has caused Nelson the greatest trouble. Nelson received a break when Gov. Dave Heinemann decided not to challenge him, but state Atty. Gen. Jon Bruning (and potentially other Republicans) could have enough strength to bring Nelson down. President Obama will be at the top of the Democratic ticket in 2012, and he is certain to lose the state in a landslide. Unlike 2008, Obama may have almost no presence in Nebraska in 2012. The reason? Republicans in the unicameral legislature are seriously considering an abolition of the split Electoral Vote system that enabled Obama to win an Omaha-based Electoral Vote last time around. Without the incentive to compete in Omaha, and with no prospects of winning the state, the Obama campaign would spend nothing in Nebraska.

New Jersey: To judge by Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez’s low poll ratings, it would be easy to believe that he is vulnerable in his reelection bid for a second full term. But the voters of New Jersey traditionally give low ratings to virtually all of their statewide elected officials. Moreover, there is a lack of depth in the GOP bench in New Jersey. Gov. Chris Christie (R) certainly is not going to run, and it is not yet clear whether any major Republican officeholder will do so. Even if a strong Republican steps forward, he or she will have a mountain to climb in the Garden State, where Democrats win nine out of ten of the battles for top offices. Still for now, we will list Menendez as potentially vulnerable, mainly given Christie’s influence. Having a governor recruiting and organizing for an as-yet unknown candidate can make some real difference.

New Mexico: Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman has become something of an institution in his state since his first election in 1982. He says he is running again, despite earlier retirement rumors, and if that is so, he will be a substantial favorite. However, former Congresswoman Heather Wilson is seriously considering a candidacy to oppose Bingaman. Despite her defeat for the other Senate seat in 2008, she would be an impressive candidate. Naturally, Wilson hopes that Bingaman steps down and she will have an open seat.

Nevada: There is no more vulnerable Republican incumbent senator in the nation than John Ensign, who has disgraced his office with an embarrassing extramarital affair with a key staffer that included a payoff from his parents to the mistress and her husband. It is fair to say that most Republicans in and out of Nevada hope that Ensign will not run again, but there is a strong strain of shamelessness in politicians that may manifest itself in this case. The key is whether GOP Congressman Dean Heller decides to run against Ensign in the party primary. If Heller does so, he will be considered the favorite to win both the primary and the general election. Lieutenant Governor Brian Krolicki, former congressman Jon Porter, 2010 GOP primary contenders Danny Tarkanian and John Chachas, or even Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle could still run against Ensign in the GOP primary if Heller does not. Should Ensign emerge as the GOP nominee, then Democratic Congresswoman Shelley Berkley would have a good shot at Ensign in the general election.

New York: Fumbling Republicans in the Empire State lost their best opportunity to take down appointed Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in 2010. She had been chosen by deeply unpopular Gov. David Paterson (D) and was not well known or well liked. After her easy victory in 2010 against minimal GOP opposition for the two years remaining in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s term, Gillibrand is in good shape to secure her own six-year term in 2012. Her visibility in championing the 9/11 responders’ cause in the lame-duck session of 2010 certainly didn’t hurt her either.

Ohio: In Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, we have another freshman elected in the strongly Democratic year of 2006 who is very vulnerable. Like most swing states, Ohio moved in the Republican direction in 2010, with the GOP sweeping statewide office from governor down, and picking up five U.S. House seats. The possibilities are rich for the GOP as they seek the appropriate opponent for Brown, including Rep. Jim Jordan and Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor. As in so many other 2012 battlegrounds, a great deal will depend upon President Obama’s political recovery. If he wins the Buckeye State again, Brown can catch his coattails, but if he doesn’t, Brown may well lose too. It’s a tossup for now.

Pennsylvania: One of the stronger freshman Democrats, Bob Casey, is seeking a second term. Despite GOP successes in 2010, even Republicans acknowledge that Casey won’t be easy to defeat. His name has been magic in Keystone State politics for decades, thanks to his father, a former two-term governor. Possible Republican opponents include congressmen Charlie Dent and Jim Gerlach, with a host of other names receiving attention as well. Given the fact that Republicans won the governorship, a U.S. Senate seat, and five House seats, we rate Casey as potentially vulnerable. In this case, though, the emphasis has to be on “potentially”.

Rhode Island: In the most consistently Democratic state in the U.S., you wouldn’t think a freshman Democratic senator would be in any trouble. And Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse isn’t. Former GOP Gov. Don Carcieri would be a formidable foe for Whitehouse, if Carcieri can be convinced to run, but that’s doubtful. In any event, President Obama will sweep Rhode Island in 2012, and those coattails should be more than enough to guarantee Whitehouse a second term.

Tennessee: Sen. Bob Corker was the only Republican in a strongly competitive contest to win a Senate seat in 2006, defeating U.S. Rep. Harold Ford (D). Since his election to a first term, Corker has been a constructive and sometimes bipartisan member of the upper chamber, well respected by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Corker may attract a Tea Party primary challenge as a result, but assuming he handles that effectively, he’s a shoo-in for a second term in 2012 in the deeply Red Volunteer State.

Texas: Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) once seemed unstoppable in her quest to become governor of Texas in 2010, but Gov. Rick Perry (R) swamped her in the party primary by portraying her as a “liberal.” Hutchison is no liberal, even by Texas standards, but she has been a moderate-conservative. In the Lone Star State, that may not be enough for her to get re-nominated, especially in her current weakened condition. Already, a slew of powerful GOP officeholders are being mentioned as primary opponents, and Hutchison may not even run again. We need to see whether she wants another term, and who ultimately decides to run against her or for an open seat. The probability is very high that anyone winning the Republican nod will be the next senator. The Democratic Party of Texas is barely breathing at the statewide level.

Utah: Sen. Orrin Hatch, first elected in 1976, is running again. As a senior conservative Republican in one of the two or three most GOP states in the Union, one would think he could be called safe. He cannot be yet. The Tea Party ousted Hatch’s friend and colleague, Sen. Bob Bennett, in 2010’s party convention. In fact, Bennett finished third, and didn’t even qualify for the party primary, replaced in November by a far more conservative Republican, Sen. Mike Lee. Like Bennett, Hatch has been accused of fraternizing with Democrats and becoming too much a Beltway creature—much of which is inarguably true. Unlike Bennett, Hatch has perceived the threat early, and is doing what he can to ward off a possible convention challenge from U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R). Any Republican will win a November landslide in Utah, and President Obama will be lucky to get the 35% of the vote he received in 2008. Overall, we doubt Utah will throw away Hatch’s seniority on top of Bennett’s.

Virginia: Well-respected within the Senate, freshman Sen. Jim Webb has had a productive and successful Senate term, but he doesn’t excel at glad-handing or enjoy political chores. No one has a clue whether he’ll seek a second term, even his own staff. While Democrats would be very unhappy if he left them in the lurch, they also wouldn’t be shocked if Webb chose to return to a career of book-writing & movie-making. There is no logical Democratic successor, though the national party would try to convince former Gov. Tim Kaine, the chairman of the DNC, to mount a bid. On the GOP side, Webb’s vanquished 2006 foe, George Allen, seems set on revenge and is the GOP favorite. But some conservative Tea Party activists believe he is too tied to failed Bush policies (such as big spending)—and then there is the infamous “macaca” baggage. Allen would be expected to win the GOP primary handily, however. If President Obama recovers and carries Virginia again in 2012, Webb—should he run—will probably win, since few Obama backers would vote for Allen. But if Obama loses Virginia, Webb or any Democrat is probably toast. At this early stage, the picture is murky and the contest is a tossup.

Vermont: Sen. Bernie Sanders is an unusual combination of adjectives: iconoclastic, socialist, Democratic, and independent. Add to this: unassailable for reelection to his second Senate term in 2012.

Washington: Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) is an automatic favorite for reelection to a third term. She doesn’t have a particularly high profile, nor does she have an intense popular following. But she’s a Democrat and an incumbent in a state that isn’t inclined to support Republicans in most circumstances. President Obama should win handily in Washington, as he did in 2008, and that ought to be enough for Cantwell.

Wisconsin: Despite a fierce GOP trend in the state in 2010, when the GOP ousted Sen. Russ Feingold (D), took over the governor’s office and state legislature, and won a couple of U.S. House seats, Sen. Herb Kohl will still be favored for reelection to a fifth term in 2012—if he runs, that is. Retirement rumors are rampant, but this low-key wealthy senator, who will be 77 next Election Day, has been close-mouthed about his intentions. If he steps down, Democrats will push Feingold to mount a comeback, though he may not be ready to do that so soon. Republicans are bound to tout U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, assuming he wants to leave his new House Budget Committee leadership posting. If Kohl runs, it’s his. If not, it will start off as a tossup.

West Virginia: It’s been a rocky transition for former governor and now Sen. Joe Manchin, who won the late Sen. Robert Byrd’s seat in a special election for a two-year term in November 2010. Manchin was seriously threatened in that election because of President Obama’s enormous unpopularity in the Mountain State (cap and trade, and all that), but after literally shooting a hole in the cap and trade bill in a TV ad, Manchin made it to the Senate. Then the new senator skipped a couple of critical lame-duck session votes (“don’t ask, don’t tell” and the DREAM Act) to attend a family Christmas party. That didn’t go over well. Sen. Manchin will be the favorite for a full six-year term in 2012 if he can right his ship, and stay away from too close an association with the president, who is bound to lose West Virginia in a landslide again. If Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito runs for Senate instead of Governor, though, it would be a horserace.

Wyoming: Sen. John Barrasso is a studious senator not given to rhetorical flourishes. He has also done nothing to shake his firm hold on this Senate seat, and his reelection in 2012 will be a snooze-fest.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

See Other Commentary by Larry Sabato

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