It's time to polish off those Thanksgiving leftovers and get ready for the final month of 2011. But December will be far from a throwaway month when it comes to Senate races. In fact, the end of 2011 could prove to be quite consequential. Here are the five biggest questions we're asking before we flip the calendar to 2012
1) Will Sen. Ben Nelson retire?
If he runs for reelection, holding his seat will be one of Democrats' most difficult tasks in 2012. If he doesn't, they can write off their chances in Nebraska, given the lack of any party bench to speak of in the Cornhusker State.
Nelson, who in a recent interview with the Lincoln Journal Star sounded very uncertain about his future, will decide sometime during the Christmas season. An internal poll conducted on the Democrat's behalf shows he's improved his standing, but is still in a statistical tie with flawed Republican Jon Bruning. The bump hasn't come out of nowhere: Democrats have poured over a million dollars into early ad buys promoting Nelson.
If Nelson thinks he faces long odds at winning, don't count on him running again. But if the Democratic polling is on target, he may well decide to fight it out for a third term.
2) Will the wounded GOP establishment prevail in primaries?
Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla., has polled very well so far, giving Republicans new life in what once looked like a tough race against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. But while the Mack name is well-known in the Sunshine State, his skills running a statewide campaign aren't. On Monday, he finally officially launched his campaign and is surrounded by more question marks (immigration, fundraising) than answers.
Another candidate who has not (officially, at least) "launched" is former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson. He is set to do so on Thursday, but will his launch signal a more active campaign presence? One man who hasn't forgotten about Thompson is Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., whose not-so-coincidentally timed endorsement of former Rep. Mark Neumann landed this week.
3) Will Ted Cruz make a move in Texas?
With Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst
and former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert
each up on TV already, the former state solicitor general's absence from the airwaves is glaring. He's the candidate who most seriously needs to build up his name identification, too. With a March primary looming, time is not on Cruz's side. He does not necessarily need to go up until January, when the ad war will begin in earnest, but he may opt to make his mark before the end of the fundraising period, to reassure donors.
4) Will Richard Carmona's campaign sizzle or fizzle in Arizona?
Any time the president recruits a candidate into a race, we'll take notice. So national Democrats got their man when Carmona, the former Surgeon General under George W. Bush
entered the race in Arizona. But he's kept a low profile so far, and isn't alone in the Democratic primary. Don Bivens
, the former state party chairman who put up decent fundraising numbers last quarter, jumped in first and has sought to label Carmona as the handpicked D.C. candidate.
Some food for thought: Will Carmona's past make him too conservative for a Democratic primary? Arizona is by no means a liberal state, so Carmona has that working in his favor. He'll have to show that he can live up to the hype by raising money and he'll have to prove his mettle by making inroads with an Arizona Democratic community which is still largely unfamiliar with him. Carmona got some help in that department on Monday, when former Democratic Sen. Dennis DeConcini
-- the last Arizona Democrat to be elected to the Senate -- endorsed him.
5) Will Dan Liljenquist challenge Orrin Hatch?
We've seen this story before: Rising Utah conservative star starts laying the groundwork for a Senate bid, launching preemptive barbs at Hatch from the longtime senator's right. Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz
passed on a run; will Liljenquist follow in his footsteps or take the plunge? The state senator, who has cultivated a reputation as a policy wonk who has made his mark on entitlement reform is likely to decide at the end of this month and will likely make an announcement shortly after the new year. Meanwhile, despite all the talk of outside groups slamming Hatch, American Action Network is up with a Fox News buy defending him
-- and his $4 million war chest. Nothing to scoff at.