When Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., announced on Friday that he will not seek a fifth term, Democrats got exactly what they didn't need -- another open Senate seat to defend in a year in which they're already juggling a daunting number of targets.
(RELATED: Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., to Retire)
Before Kohl's announcement, Republicans had little hope of seriously contesting the seat. Now, it will be one of the most hotly contested battles of the 2012 Senate landscape.
"The office doesn't belong to me. It belongs to the people of Wisconsin, and there is something to be said for not staying in office too long," Kohl said on Friday, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "I've always believed it's better to leave a job a little too early than a little too late, and that's how I feel today."
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Kohl's decision, coming five years after he won reelection with 67 percent of the vote, is an unmistakable blow to Democrats, not only in Wisconsin but in Washington. With a narrow 53-47 majority in the upper chamber and tasked with defending 23 Democratic-held Senate seats this year, Democrats need all the help they can get to maintain control.
(PICTURES: Kohl is 9th to Quit This Year. Why So Many?)
But Kohl's retirement underscores the important role Wisconsin has taken on the national stage. The state's demographic makeup and its anxious electorate raise the possibility that the road to a Senate majority, and perhaps even the road to the White House, could run through Wisconsin.
In 2010, Republicans won back the governorship, unseated Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold, took back two Democratic-held House seats and won control of both chambers of the state Legislature. This year, GOP Gov. Scott Walker's effort to end collective-bargaining rights for state employees, and the subsequent recall elections that debate spawned, have made Wisconsin the central battleground.
Nationally, it is a Wisconsinite, Rep. Paul Ryan, who has tossed himself in the middle of a world-class debate over the federal deficit. The proposed budget from the chairman of the House Budget Committee, a part of which would dramatically alter Medicare, has given Democrats an issue on which to hammer GOP lawmakers.
(RELATED: DSCC: We Thought Kohl Would Run)
Republicans, meanwhile, have put Ryan on a pedestal; he was tapped to give the GOP's response to the State of the Union address, and many in the conservative pundit class would like to see him run for president.
Wisconsin, the (disputed) birthplace of the Republican Party, even sent one of its native sons, Reince Priebus, to assume the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee.
That Wisconsin could be a battleground should trouble Democrats, who have for more than two decades been able to count on the state as a part of the proverbial "blue wall," the group of 18 West Coast, Northeastern and upper Midwestern states that Democrats have won in each of the last five presidential elections. To win Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan, the three Midwestern bricks in the wall, Democrats have had to rely on a larger number of white voters than they have elsewhere.
But in recent years, white voters -- particularly those who do not have a college degree -- have turned on Democrats. In 2008, President Obama won 52 percent of these noncollege whites in Wisconsin. Just two years later, Democrat Feingold lost noncollege whites by 58 percent to 40 percent; even though Feingold won among white voters with college degrees and among minorities, he lost his seat to Republican Ron Johnson.
Obama performed much better among white voters in Wisconsin than he did in most states. And his approval ratings remain strong, according to a survey conducted April 5-18 by St. Norbert College. That poll, of 400 Wisconsin adults, showed that 52 percent of Wisconsinites approved of Obama's job performance, while 45 percent disapproved. Still, because 54 percent of the electorate is made up of noncollege whites, the very demographic with which Obama has had the most trouble, Wisconsin's electoral votes are on the table in 2012.
Now that Kohl is retiring, organizations that focus on electing senators will target the state as well. And both sides have big-name candidates who will take hard looks at the race.
Feingold has indicated that he would like to stay involved in politics, and a return bid is certainly a possibility. So is one by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a former House member who lost a bid for governor in 2010 but who remains one of the better-known Democrats statewide. Democratic insiders also mention Reps. Ron Kind as a possible recruit, although he seems a less obvious statewide contender.
Republicans may turn to Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen. He was reelected to a second term in 2010, so he would not have to give up his seat to run for the Senate. Businessman Tim Michels, who lost a bid against Feingold in 2004, would give Republicans a wealthy self-funder, a model that worked with Johnson in 2004. And former Rep. Mark Neumann, who has run for statewide office several times, had already met with Republican officials about the prospect of challenging Kohl.
Even before Kohl made his surprise announcement, Republicans had high hopes of winning back the Senate. In need of four seats, the environment is ripe for the GOP to snag Democratic-held seats. Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Jim Webb D-Va., will retire; and Republican have strong candidates seeking the seats. Meanwhile, Republicans are also aiming to unseat vulnerable Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Jon Tester, D-Mont., Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, along with targeting a Democratic-leaning open seat in New Mexico.
Democratic strategists have been successful in urging members to decide and declare early if they plan retire so that other Democrats have time to build well-financed campaigns. But perhaps they have been too successful; Kohl, more than most who have said they will step down, would probably not have faced a strenuous challenge in 2012.
After big wins in 2006, Senate Democrats have known all along that they face long odds of keeping the upper chamber. With Wisconsin suddenly on the table, and the party still searching for ways to win back some of the demographic groups who abandoned them in 2010, those odds just got longer.
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This article appears in the May 13, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.