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Assessing the 2012 Senate Battlefield

Assessing the 2012 Senate Battlefield

By Sean Trende - January 20, 2011

With the seriatim retirement announcements of Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Democratic Senator Kent Conrad, and independent Senator Joe Lieberman (who caucuses with the Democrats), the 2012 campaign for Senate has officially kicked off. While the 2010 races were, until fairly late in the game, only about breaking the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority, 2012 will feature a full-on battle for control of the upper chamber.

While it is still too early to make any real predictions, we can break these seats down into categories of competitiveness. Democrats clearly start out with more vulnerabilities than Republicans, largely as because (a) Democrats have to defend 23 seats to the Republicans' 10 and (b) of those seats, the median Democratic seat has a PVI of D+2, while the median Republican seat has a PVI of R+8.

Republicans

Only two Republican seats are really on the "automatically competitive" list. The Republicans aren't expecting many retirements, and all but one of their incumbents has already won in a very bad Republican year. The real danger to Republicans comes from primary challenges. If Republican senators fall to conservative challengers, it will create a whole new series of headaches for NRSC Chairman John Cornyn, especially if the overall political environment improves for Democrats.

Safe - Roger Wicker (MS), Orrin Hatch (UT), John Barrasso (WY). Even if these senators were to lose in a primary - and Hatch just might (at the GOP convention) - these seats are extremely unlikely to flip, regardless of the environment.

Probably Safe - Jon Kyl (AZ), Richard Lugar (IN), Bob Corker (TN). What makes these states different than the previous three is that Democratic presidential candidates have carried them in the past 20 years, and they have elected Democratic senators in fairly recent memory. Kyl is a rumored retirement, and while Arizona Republicans have a strong bench and are coming off of a great year, an open seat would probably not start out with a "safe" designation, especially if President Obama targets the state.

The danger to the Lugar and Corker seats comes from rumored primary challenges. Lugar in particular almost seems to be daring the right to primary him. These two states have a history of favoring moderately conservative Republicans; no tea party model has been tried in either state at the Senate level. If the political situation improves for Democrats and Lugar or Corker loses to a very conservative challenger, these seats could conceivably be in play. Otherwise, Republicans should be heavily favored to hold on.

Safe, Pending Primary - Olympia Snowe (ME). Snowe won by 53 percent over token opposition in 2006. Of more importance is that the junior senator from Maine, Susan Collins, won by 23 points over strong opposition in 2008. Maine Republicans elected a socially and fiscally conservative Republican governor (albeit by a plurality) and took control of both houses of the legislature, giving the Republicans the trifecta for the first time since 1962. Snowe should be in pretty good shape for 2012.

But she first needs to become the GOP nominee. Successful tea party challenges were concentrated in states with closed primaries and a shrunken GOP. Maine fits that bill. Snowe received the endorsement of Governor LePage, and the rumored challenger has yet to emerge. However, there's at least a reasonable chance that she will be O'Donnell'ed. Otherwise, she's probably safe.

Vulnerable - Scott Brown (MA), John Ensign (NV) - Brown has polled remarkably well, even in Democratic polling, and his brand of independent Republicanism may actually be a better fit for the state than Kennedyesque liberalism. Still, it is Massachusetts, in a presidential year, and he starts as no more than a mild favorite.

As for Ensign, the story here is well-known. He is a scandal-tarred incumbent in a swing state. If a strong GOP'er like Dean Heller upsets Ensign in the primary then the Republicans will have a good shot at keeping the seat, but if Ensign (or an Sharron Angle-esque candidate) wins the nod, the GOP will have a rough go of it.

Texas - Open - Texas really gets its own space here. To recap, Democrats have touted their chances of winning here in the 2002 Senate race (the GOP won by 11 points), the 2002 governor race (18 points), the 2006 governor race (10 points), the 2008 Senate race (12 points) and the 2010 governor race (13 points). Each time the Democrats nominated a candidate with an outstanding profile for winning. So while I don't write off Democratic chances completely in this minority-majority state, I am skeptical. And remember, Texas has a PVI of R+10, which makes it as Republican as New York is Democratic.

Democrats

Much will depend on the overall environment here. In 2010, the GOP won three of four Senate seats in Republican PVI states, won half of the seats that were D+1 or D+2, and picked off a D+8 seat in Illinois. But for self-inflicted wounds in Delaware, Nevada and Colorado, and a timely Democratic retirement in Connecticut, they might have gone much deeper into blue territory.

This time around, a similar performance would yield even greater GOP gains, because the playing field is tilted more heavily in their favor. Democrats hold eight seats that are Republican-leaning, and another four that are D+2 or better; at a 2010 rate, even including short-sighted primary decisions, that would result in a GOP pickup of nine or 10 seats.

Still, the environment may well improve, particularly as the Obama campaign spends a billion dollars on its re-election effort. Here's an overall take of the basic vulnerability of these 23 seats:

Vulnerable - Nelson (NE), Open (ND), Tester (MT), McCaskill (MO), Nelson (FL), Webb (VA), Brown (OH). As I explained Tuesday, the Democrats have pretty much lost the Conrad seat. Most polling shows Nelson (of Nebraska) in deep trouble. His brand was built upon being a well-liked almost-Republican; with the health care vote I am skeptical that he will be able to qualify as the latter anymore. The freshmen trio of Tester, McCaskill and Webb all won narrow victories in the terrible GOP year of 2006, and all are likely to draw a strong GOP opponent. In a presidential year, they will face a tough fight regardless of the environment.

In Ohio, Sherrod Brown is a very liberal Democrat in a state where a moderate GOPer just won by over 20 points. But unlike the prior three freshmen, Brown won by a wide margin himself in 2006, and there isn't an obvious top-tier GOP challenger like there is in the previous three states. Still, it is hard to believe the GOP won't find a tough challenger in this swing state.

Finally, Florida's Nelson is probably halfway between "vulnerable" and "potentially vulnerable." He's a better fit for his state than the other six. But you can't ignore that the state just gave a very conservative senator over 50 percent of the vote and elected a highly controversial GOPer as governor over a respected Democrat. He may prove me wrong, but I think he starts out on the watch list.

Potentially Vulnerable - Manchin (WV), Casey (PA), Kohl (WI), Stabenow (MI), Cantwell (WA). The fate of these five senators probably depends on the national environment. If the political environment fails to improve for Democrats or worsens, I think we can expect Casey, Kohl and Stabenow to be in extremely rough shape on Election Day, given the way their state parties fared in 2010 against some mediocre GOP nominees. Manchin's fate will depend on his voting record; while I expect him to be anything but a reliable Democratic vote, his margin for error is going to be pretty small in a presidential year.

As for Cantwell, the GOP always seems to come up short in Washington. Such was the case in 2010 and in 2006 (when Cantwell looked vulnerable until her opponent imploded). Nevertheless, there are a few GOPers who could give her a good race in the right environment, and the Washington state GOP seems ready to move on from its Dino Rossi phase.

Safe, Pending Retirement Decisions - Bingaman (NM). If Bingaman runs for re-election, he will probably win. If he retires, as has been rumored, Republican Heather Wilson would be a force, unless the national mood improves for the Democrats.

Safe, Pending GOP Recruitment - Open (CT), Akaka (HI), Whitehouse (RI), Menendez (NJ) - In the first three states, the GOP has one strong candidate who, if the national environment continues to favor Republicans, could really put these races in play (Rell in CT, Lingle in HI, Carcieri in RI). But beyond those, it would be a tough sell. In Menendez's case there isn't an obvious challenger, but his approval ratings are low enough that if the GOP can find a credible challenger, it could make a race of it. However, in New Jersey that is a bigger "if" than you might think.

Safe - Feinstein (CA), Sanders (VT), Gillibrand (NY), Cardin (MD), Carper (DE), Klobuchar (MN). There has been some talk of a Feinstein retirement. If she retires the GOP would still need (a) the environment to remain favorable and (b) a moderate, well-funded charismatic candidate. The only other arguable one here is Klobuchar, but her approval numbers have held up well, and most GOPers would probably wait two more years for a shot at Senator Franken.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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