Republicans have spent the first month of the year landing a slate of top-tier Senate candidates for 2012, which has already put the majority tantalizingly in reach.
The early successes are a clear sign the momentum from last year’s midterm wave is continuing in the recruitment process for 2012. Only one month into 2011, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has already recruited three top-tier candidates against several of the most vulnerable Democrats. And Republicans start off with a significant edge in the contest for the seat of Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who announced his retirement last month.
The GOP was always looking at a favorable map in 2012, defending only 10 Senate seats to the Democrats’ 23, and it won’t take another wave election to capture the net four needed to win a majority.
But races are never won on paper, and it takes the recruitment of strong candidates who can raise money to capitalize on a favorable playing field. Based on the GOP’s early start, though, they’re well on their way.
The GOP’s most recent recruiting coup was convincing Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., to challenge Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. As the state’s at-large representative, Rehberg is a popular figure and already has been on the statewide ballot. Since he was first elected in 2000, he’s won at least 59 percent of the vote.
Like many Democratic incumbents in Republican-leaning states, Tester will have to defend his votes on health care and spending. He’ll also have to do some fence-mending with progressives, who helped propel him to the nomination in 2006. His vote against the Dream Act led Daily Kos publisher Markos Moulitsas to declare that Tester “is the Blanche Lincoln of 2012—the Democrat I will most be happy to see go down in defeat.”
Before his election to the House, Rehberg ran for the Senate against Max Baucus in 1996, and held the Democratic incumbent to a career-low 50 percent of the vote. And Rehberg held a two-point lead over the incumbent, 48 to 46 percent, in a Public Policy Polling (IVR) survey conducted last November, with an internal Rehberg survey this month showing the Republican with a six-point lead.
While most challengers begin a race at a financial disadvantage, Rehberg is in competitive financial shape, having ended last year with $553,000 in his campaign account. That’s nearly as much as the $562,000 that Tester banked at year’s end.
Tester is far from the only Democrat who begins the year in a tough situation. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., represents an even more conservative state but has thrived due to the independent image he’s carefully cultivated with his support for tax cuts, the Iraq war, and other GOP initiatives. But that changed over the last year after he spent much of 2010 defending his pivotal vote in the push to pass health care reform and took heat for trying to secure funding for his state in exchange for his vote—derisively labeled the “Cornhusker Kickback.”
Republican Attorney General Jon Bruning wasted no time entering the race, at the beginning of January. Both Democratic and Republican polling have shown Nelson trailing the GOP candidate.
A newly-released automated poll, conducted by PPP, shows him trailing Bruning by 11 points, with a dismal 39 percent approval and 50 percent disapproval rating. Two Republican polls conducted this month, one commissioned by the Nebraska Republican party, also show Nelson trailing Bruning by double-digits. All of the polls show Nelson failing to hit the 40 percent mark – brutal territory for a sitting senator.
If Nelson decides not to run, the GOP would have a clear advantage in an open-seat contest. And if he does run again, it will still be a decidedly uphill battle.
Republicans also have an encouraging position in Virginia, where all eyes are on Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, who has set March as his deadline for deciding whether he’ll seek a second term.
Webb upset then-Sen. George Allen in 2006, helped by it being a lousy year for Republicans and by Allen’s self-inflicted “macaca” wound. But now the spotlight is on Webb, who voted with President Obama on his key initiatives, even as he has expressed increasing dissatisfaction with the White House.
Allen announced his comeback bid this month. He has to get through a primary against challengers courting tea party support, but it’s a contest in which he’s favored. If Webb chooses to retire, Allen would have the early advantage, thanks to the thin Democratic bench in the Old Dominion.
Webb hasn’t shown much campaign activity: He ended last year with only $444,000 in his campaign account, raising just $12,000 in the final quarter of 2010. That doesn’t give him much of a head start financially against Allen, a proven fundraiser.
A fourth promising opportunity for the GOP opened up this month in North Dakota, where Conrad’s retirement has created a rush of Republicans seeking to replace him.
There’s been little interest so far on the Democratic side, and the party’s brand—populism leavened with concern over budget deficits—took a major hit because of the administration’s spending. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., cruised to an easy victory in November, and Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy lost the at-large House seat he had held for 18 years.
These opportunities are just the beginning for Republicans, who also are watching fields develop early against Sens. Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Bill Nelson in Florida. Neither race features a GOP world-beater (and former Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., passed on a run). But both Democrats should face challenging races, given the battleground nature of their states.
No one has jumped in yet to challenge Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., or Robert Casey, D-Pa., but Republicans plan on aggressively contesting those states, among others.
Democrats, meanwhile, will have a limited number of opportunities to play offense: The races in Massachusetts, Nevada, and potentially Indiana and Maine (if Republican senators are ousted in primaries) look the most promising. However, Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., is the only notable candidate to express interest in running in one of those states so far.
In 2010, Democrats dodged a worst-case scenario in the Senate because many of the lawmakers up for reelection were from traditionally blue states. But that’s not going to be the case in 2012. With health care reform being litigated during this cycle, red-state Democrats won’t be able to avoid the issue.
This class of Democrats benefited from the landslide that hit Republicans in 2006, but the majority-makers will need to brace themselves for a rough ride.
This article appears in the Feb. 2, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.