Writing about an election that is just over 21 months away can be perilous. We don’t know what the political climate will be or who will be running. In the 2010 election cycle, the early Senate story line focused on the greater number of open seats that the Republican had to defend, and the initial reading was that this would help the Democrats. By last fall, though, the open seats were more evenly divided, and the GOP ended up gaining six overall.
What we know about the 2012 Senate elections is that the Democrats have 23 seats to defend, compared with only 10 for the Republicans. We also know that the nine Democrats slated to run for their second term next year were elected in 2006, a great year for their party, and that the political environment will be different in 2012. With the current Senate makeup of 53 Democrats and 47 Republicans, the GOP needs to capture four seats to gain a majority (or just three if they win the White House and thus have a GOP vice president who can break tie votes).
Obviously, it’s not a foregone conclusion that Democrats will lose control of the Senate. Retirements, recruiting, campaign developments, and the economy will play huge roles in determining the outcome. Still, simple math suggests that their hold on the majority is at risk.
So far, three senators have announced their retirements—two Democrats and one Republican.
Four-term Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota has said he will not run again, giving Republicans a very strong opportunity for a pickup. For 16 years, the troika of Byron Dorgan and Conrad in the Senate and Earl Pomeroy in the House seemed to have locked down the code for how Democrats could win in this overwhelmingly Republican state. It was as if they genetically modified the traditional liberal Democratic molecule into a populist one that emphasized the dangers of budget deficits; together, they created an organism that won federal elections while their party could claim little else in the state.
Now, though, that chemical recipe seems to be breaking down. Given the political climate, Dorgan wisely opted not to seek re-election last year. Pomeroy lost his reelection bid, and Conrad, almost certainly sensing a very tough fight ahead, opted to retire rather than run in 2012. It’s too soon to unofficially award the seat to the Republicans, but they have a strong chance to pick it up.
Ironically, one retirement announced so far—that of independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who caucuses with the Democrats—actually helps the party. Lieberman faced a very steep road to reelection whether he ran as a Democrat, a Republican, or an independent. The contest for the Democratic nomination will be hard fought, and it is unclear who will seek the GOP nod, but Democrats are probably well positioned to keep this seat in their column.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas is the lone GOP retiree so far, and Republicans are favored to retain that seat despite what is shaping up to be a crowded primary.
Other retirements seem inevitable. In the Democratic column, Sens. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, Dianne Feinstein of California, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Jim Webb of Virginia might opt to step away. Whether the incumbents run or not, the Nebraska and Virginia seats look very vulnerable to a party shift. The GOP might be able to win open seats in California and Hawaii, but the odds still favor Democrats in those states.
Among Republicans, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the minority whip, is rumored to be contemplating retirement. He faces little danger of defeat, but he seems to be considering whether he wants to spend the rest of his working life as a senator or perhaps make a career change after 26 years in Congress. Scandal-plagued Sen. John Ensign of Nevada would seem to be a prime candidate for retirement. No matter what he decides, the state seems headed for a second consecutive hotly contested Senate race.
In Utah, Sen. Orrin Hatch has a difficult decision to make, despite his seniority and accomplishments. He is likely to face a primary challenge from a tea party-backed candidate, and he could very well suffer the same fate that his former colleague, Sen. Robert Bennett, did last year when the GOP convention denied him a place on the primary ballot.
Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, a leading GOP moderate, would seem vulnerable to a tea party challenge, but her chances of surviving were boosted greatly by newly elected GOP Gov. Paul LePage, a tea party favorite who has endorsed her for reelection. Finally, some observers had thought that Sen. Richard Lugar might step aside, particularly if he had to face a tea party candidate in Indiana’s GOP primary. But the six-term incumbent has made it clear he will run, and his poll numbers look strong.
Both parties have Senate incumbents on their target lists, but much like the 2010 cycle, the 2012 election season may well be defined by the chamber’s open seats.
This article appears in the January 29, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.