The Crystal Ball's Senate Ratings
A Commentary by Larry J. Sabato
It’s time for a quick update on the 2012 Senate and Governor contests. Even though only two months have passed since our January roll-out, a surprisingly large number of shifts have occurred.
Partly because Senate Democrats pushed their potential retirees to announce early in the election cycle, we have witnessed a spate of farewells by the party’s senators, and the map has changed as a result. There have been some major developments in gubernatorial battles, too. Campaigns for statewide office take a minimum of two full years now, given the massive amount of fundraising necessary to compete, so the line-ups seem to form more quickly with every new election cycle.
We repeat for emphasis what we said in January: It is ridiculously premature to issue hard projections. 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…
Again, we know our readers are busy. You don’t have endless hours to read lengthy essays about every campaign. So we’ve boiled it down into some straightforward categories, with a series of charts we will continue to alter and re-print with some frequency for the next 18 months. In a glance you can see which contests are competitive at the moment. We are sacrificing subtlety and detail for simplicity and efficiency.
For each contest for Senate and Governor, we list primary and general election candidates (as currently guessed). Then we rate each race twice, asking these questions:
- Overall, if there is an incumbent running, how vulnerable is the incumbent in the party primary or general election? There are five ratings, top to bottom: Safe, Very vulnerable, Vulnerable, Potentially vulnerable, or Retiring (under conditions we outline).
- Overall, given the incumbent’s (or the likely non-incumbent candidates’) level of strength and/or the state’s partisan leanings, how do 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: incumbents Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Jon Tester (D-MT), Ben Nelson (D-NE), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and the seats of the retiring Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), John Ensign (R-NV), and Jim Webb (D-VA).
In addition to Bingaman and Webb, three more Democratic incumbents have chosen to step down: Daniel Akaka (D-HI), Kent Conrad (D-ND), and Joe Lieberman (D/I-CT). Democratic Senate leaders believe the rest of their incumbents are running again—though surprise retirements can never be ruled out (Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin is a prime example). The three Republican senators to have announced that they are stepping down are Arizona’s John Kyl, Texas’s Kay Bailey Hutchison, and scandal-drenched John Ensign of Nevada.
The North Dakota seat is very likely to switch to the GOP, and Republicans have a clear edge to hold Arizona and are certain to retain the Texas seat. The Hawaii and Connecticut seats will probably stay Democratic. Two currently Democratic seats start off as toss-ups, New Mexico and Virginia, along with the Republican open seat in Nevada. The identity of the eventual party nominees and the coattails from the top-of-the-ticket presidential race may well determine the winners in these three states. President Obama’s support, or lack thereof, could also have a great influence on the contests in Hawaii, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, and Ohio.
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 twelve Democrats and six 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.
Arizona: With Sen. Kyl’s retirement, a flood of possible candidates has appeared in this parched state. On the GOP side, the two most likely are Congressmen Jeff Flake and Trent Franks. Flake jumped in almost immediately, and is a favorite of the Club for Growth, which has a good record in Republican primaries. But this will potentially be a crowded primary, given the infrequency with which Senate seats become available in Arizona, so nothing is guaranteed. On the Democratic side, the sentimental favorite, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, is unlikely to be well enough to undertake this arduous effort so soon after the attempt on her life. The field has yet to shake out among Democrats, but the race will be clearly uphill. Only a surprising victory by President Obama in 2012, no doubt fueled by a large Hispanic turnout, could upset the odds.
California: At age 79 in 2012, Sen. Dianne Feinstein appears to be running again. If that holds true, she is the automatic, substantial frontrunner. Even if she decides to retire a year from now, 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: Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an Independent who sits with the Democrats, bowed to reality and decided to retire undefeated—at least in November. He was likely to lose the 2012 general election anyway. Despite being the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000 and championing “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, Lieberman became enormously unpopular in the Democratic party because of his backing of President Bush’s Iraq policy and his support for 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain. Having lost his Democratic re-nomination to the Senate in 2006, he was very unlikely to win it in 2012 against any well-known officeholder, and running as an independent or Republican was unlikely to work either. The Democratic nominee to succeed Lieberman, either Congressman Chris Murphy or state Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz, will probably be the next senator. 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, as does McMahon’s 2010 intra-party opponent, former Congressman Rob Simmons, 2010 gubernatorial nominee Tom Foley may prefer to run for governor again in 2014.
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, who 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. If Obama is back on top by ’12, and carries Florida, Nelson should have no trouble. Given the uncertainty, several Republicans are maneuvering to run. 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 (who is embroiled in an embarrassing controversy involving a large college payment, or pay-off, for an unpublished book), 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 that he is interested in the seat or a 2012 presidential run—as some national Republicans would like to see.
Hawaii: Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka is 86 years old and finally bowed to the inevitable. With even his colleague, 86-year old Dan Inouye (D), expressing doubt about his reelection effort, Akaka has chosen to retire, opening up the first Aloha Senate vacancy since 1990. The Democrats have a strong bench, but it is as yet unsure which ones will run. The party nominee will probably come from a trio of U.S. House members: Rep. Mazie Hirono, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, and former Rep. Ed Case. 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. But 2012 is probably the wrong year for any Republican, since the Democratic candidate 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 is being challenged by the elected Indiana state treasurer, Richard Mourdock, who is already attracting strong conservative support in many quarters. It is not yet clear that Mourdock will be Lugar’s only significant GOP challenger, and since the Hoosier State has no run-off, Lugar would undoubtedly welcome all to the ballot. This is a primary to watch. As for the Democrats, this will be a seat that is nearly impossible to win if Lugar is re-nominated and still very tough if Lugar is upended. 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. Congressman Joe Donnelly (D) may run, if only because his House district may be redistricted in such a way that he would have a difficult reelection battle.
Massachusetts: The nation received one of its great political shocks in January 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, but a lot of trial balloons are being floated. It will be surprising if Brown doesn’t get an impressive challenge, since this seat is arguably the Democrats’ best chance to take from the GOP in the entire nation. 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 more difficult to unseat than many anticipate. The release of his recent book, “Against All Odds,” underlined just how much of a political celebrity he is, beginning with lavish coverage on CBS’ “60 Minutes”. Still, 2012 won’t be easy for Brown, and since President Obama will win a large majority in the Bay State, Brown could be vulnerable right up to Election Day itself.
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 (along with her colleague, Susan Collins) 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. The Tea Party has had some unpleasant things to say about her record, even though it fits the Maine electorate as a whole almost perfectly. Recently, Snowe was given a 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, but without Snowe, this seat would likely fall to 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. Former Congressman Pete Hoekstra, who finished out of the running against Snyder in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary, may be able to mount a credible campaign against Stabenow. Again, President Obama’s reelection percentage in this state will be a critical factor.
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 barnburner 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. Talent seriously considered a rematch but declined. McCaskill will probably be opposed by either former state treasurer Sarah Steelman or former RNC co-chair Ann Wagner. 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 theoretically 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 some of 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 Republican nominee will be 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. While we never write off any incumbent not involved in a scandal, there is little question that Tester is very vulnerable and this race is and will remain a tossup.
North Dakota: Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad has decided to cash in his chips, the second Senate Democrat from North Dakota to do so in as many cycles. Just glance down the list of potential candidates to succeed Conrad, and you’ll see why we designate this race as Likely Republican. The Democratic list is skimpy, and the Republican list bursts with veteran elected talent. Unless the GOP splits six ways to Sunday in the nominating process, it is hard to see how Democrats will have much of a chance, especially since the GOP presidential nominee is likely to carry the state handily in 2012. Just a couple years ago, Democrats held all three seats in the North Dakota congressional delegation. After 2012 they’ll be out of luck.
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 the Democratic year of 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 the leading GOP candidate, state Atty. Gen. Jon Bruning, could have enough strength to bring Nelson down. Recently, state treasurer Don Stenberg, who lost to Nelson in the 2000 contest, announced a challenge to Bruning, but few think he will succeed given his earlier defeat. 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 College 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: More bad news for Democrats in the Land of Enchantment: Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman, something of an institution in his state since his first election in 1982, decided to retire. He would have been a shoo-in, but now there will be a pitched battle for the seat. Much will depend on two the answers to two questions. Will Republicans have another bloody Senate primary as in 2008 that leaves their nominee wounded? Will President Obama again sweep New Mexico, creating coattails for any Democrat, or will 2012 more closely reflect the tight 2000 and 2004 presidential battles in New Mexico? Our guess is that former Congresswoman Heather Wilson starts off as the GOP favorite, once again backed enthusiastically by the grand old man of the New Mexico GOP, former Sen. Pete Domenici. Steve Pearce, who challenged Wilson and defeated her in 2008, only to lose badly in the fall, may wisely decide to hold onto his old House seat, which he won again in 2010. The new Republican lieutenant governor, John Sanchez, is another potential threat to Wilson, though. As for Obama, as long as he can attract a healthy Hispanic turnout to the polls in 2012, he will be the favorite to win New Mexico. That should help the eventual Democratic nominee, maybe Congressman Martin Heinrich or state auditor Hector Balderas.
Nevada: Republicans got a big break here this week when scandal-drenched GOP Sen. John Ensign bowed to the inevitable and decided to retire when his term ends in 2012. Even taking into account the heavily Democratic nature of Massachusetts and Scott Brown’s precarious perch in the Bay State, there was no more vulnerable Republican incumbent senator in the nation than Ensign, who disgraced his office with an embarrassing, ultra-messy 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 hoped that Ensign would not run again, and many sent him clear signals by encouraging GOP Congressman Dean Heller to run against Ensign in the party primary. Now that won’t be necessary, and while Heller may be challenged by others, Republicans are highly likely to rally around him as their best chance by far to hold the seat. The Democratic side of the ledger is not settled, though the odds are good that the party will field a woman nominee (and possibly a Hispanic woman). Congresswoman Shelley Berkley probably has the right of first refusal, but she has not yet committed to the contest. Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and Treasurer Kate Marshall, among others, are in the wings ready to suit up if conditions are right. Normally, we’d say the Republican would have the edge in November 2012. Nevada is competitive and has been happy with its Senate arrangement, one from each party, since 2001. But 2012 is a presidential year, and Obama won Nevada handily (56.4%) in 2008. The demographics of Nevada are changing rapidly, with Hispanics accounting for 15% of the turnout in 2008 and giving Obama 76% of their votes (considerably higher than the 67% national Hispanic proportion for the Democrat). In 2010 Hispanics saved Harry Reid’s Senate seat as well. So with the Obama-Hispanic turnout combo in 2012, and the Senate contest not yet fully formed, a toss-up designation seems wise for now.
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. But 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. The disarray in the New York State GOP is a good bet to continue through the next election. Come to think of it, it’s almost always a good bet.
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 on down, and picking up five U.S. House seats. The possibilities are rich for the GOP as they seek an appropriate opponent for Brown. Yet so far, the stables aren’t bursting with thoroughbreds willing to run—and in Ohio, the identity of Brown’s opponent is critical. Ohio has never been in love with Barack Obama, and even so might be willing to consider some ticket-splitting if the voters have the option of a GOP candidate like now-Sen. Rob Portman was in 2010. As in so many other 2012 battlegrounds, a great deal will depend upon the degree of President Obama’s political recovery. If he wins the Buckeye State solidly, Brown can catch his coattails, but if he doesn’t, Brown may well lose too. It’s a tossup for now, certainly until we have a clearer idea of the Republican Party’s likely choice.
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”. Our broken record about President Obama’s 2012 margin applies to Pennsylvania too: A second Obama sweep of the state will guarantee Casey a second term.
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. President Obama will be soundly defeated in Tennessee once again.
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.” With her larger ambitions in ruins, Hutchison has decided to retire from the Senate—and even if she had run, she would have had to fight hard for re-nomination. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is considered the GOP frontrunner to succeed Hutchison, but he is no lock. Almost certainly, there will be a party runoff between the top two finishers in the first primary next year. The second slot could go to several of the candidates listed in our chart, and it is simply too early to handicap the field. It’s never too early in modern Texas politics to write off the Democrats. The probability is very, 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. He was replaced in November by a far more conservative Republican, Sen. Mike Lee. Like Bennett, Hatch has been accused of fraternizing with Democrats such as the late Ted Kennedy 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). Barely a week goes by without the normally good-humored Hatch using intemperate language to denounce President Obama or his liberal programs. 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. But if Congressman Jason Chaffetz challenges Hatch for the Republican nomination, Hatch will get a workout unlike any since his original election over Senator Frank Moss (D).
Virginia: Well-respected within the Senate, freshman Sen. Jim Webb has had a productive and successful Senate term so far, but he doesn’t excel at glad-handing or enjoy political chores. While few knew his intentions, no one was especially surprised when he threw in the towel and decided against seeking a second term. This restless soul may be one of the happiest people in Washington, D.C. these days. Freed of reelection pressures, who can say how he will vote? Once Webb bade farewell, it didn’t take long for the national party, President Obama, Sen. Mark Warner, and lots of other Democratic powerhouses to try to convince former Gov. Tim Kaine, the chairman of the DNC, to mount a bid. As the only other recent Democratic statewide winner, Kaine makes sense. He has been seriously considering the option, and is apparently close to a final decision one way or the other. Should Kaine run, he will not be seriously challenged for the nomination. If Kaine leaves his party in a lurch by refusing, then Democrats will have to turn to a member of the B team, probably to one of a trio of current and former House members who have left their names on the table. The two most senior are Congressman Bobby Scott of Tidewater, a U.S. House member since 1991 and a state legislator for a dozen years before then, and former Congressman Rick Boucher of the Southwest, defeated for reelection in 2010 after 28 years in the House (with some years in the state Senate beforehand). The most eager of the three potential substitute nominees is by far the least experienced, former Congressman Tom Perriello of the Charlottesville area, who served a single House term before his defeat in 2010. Perriello is a favorite of much of the national press corps and liberal bloggers, though many Democratic leaders privately wonder about his statewide electability. Of course, Rep. Scott also has a liberal record, and Boucher may not even be interested in making the race. This would not be the ideal situation for Democrats, which is why they are hoping to hear good news from Kaine. With or without Kaine, Democratic hopes to keep the Senate seat rest heavily on the ability of President Obama to win Virginia again by a comfortable margin, as he did in 2008 (52.6%), as well as the Republicans’ probable choice of a controversial former governor and senator. Webb’s vanquished 2006 foe, George Allen, is the clear GOP favorite, though he will have Tea Party opposition in the primary from a former staffer of his, Jamie Radtke, and possibly from others. Some Tea Party activists believe Allen is too tied to “failed Bush policies” (such as big spending)—and then there is Allen’s infamous “macaca” baggage. Allen is expected to win the June 2012 GOP primary handily, however. A Kaine-Allen match-up would be a barnburner. It is possible that some other combination would be, too, in a state that can swing wildly from election to election, depending on turnout.
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. Republican state auditor Tom Salmon may, or may not, tilt at the Sanders windmill.
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—assuming he runs, that is. Retirement rumors were rampant at one time, but this low-key wealthy senator, who will be 77 next Election Day, appears to a candidate again, though that could change. 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 very probably his. If not, it will start off as a tossup. In either case, the massive controversy ongoing in Wisconsin about collective bargaining and the state’s budget woes will stir the electoral pot in 2012.
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.
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