If Senate takeover eludes GOP on Election Day 2010, look to 2012

The 2012 election is shaping up to be a big opportunity for Republicans. If they don't win a Senate majority on Election Day 2010, they'll have plenty of vulnerable seats to contest in 2012.

Rob Carr/AP
Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell is hugged by supporters while campaigning outside of a polling station, Tuesday, in Smyrna, Del. O'Donnell is facing Democrat Chris Coons.

The votes have barely been cast in the 2010 Senate races, but strategists, activists, and potential candidates are already looking ahead to the 2012 cycle.

For the GOP, it’s a veritable cornucopia of opportunity. If the Republicans don’t take over the Senate in Tuesday’s election – and even party leaders predict they won’t quite get there – they’re well-positioned to finish the job in 2012.

For the Democrats, the vulnerabilities spread far and wide. Of the 33 Senate seats up in 2012, 21 are currently held by Democrats, and two more are held by independents who caucus with the Democrats. It’s the crowd that swept into office during the Democratic “wave” election of 2006, and those from Republican and swing states will be especially vulnerable.

One freshman senator who has to watch out is Jim Webb (D) of Virginia, a swing state that swung Republican in statewide elections a year ago. The man he ousted four years ago, former Sen. George Allen (R), is already making moves to unseat him in two years. Former Senator Allen has a Facebook fan page up, and he’s reportedly already talked with National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman John Cornyn about running. At the recent Virginia Tea Party Patriots Federation convention in Richmond, Allen was a visible presence.

Senator Webb, in contrast, has cut a low-key profile as a senator and isn’t known for his constituent services. Webb’s election was in some ways a fluke, as Allen beat himself with a racially tinged comment caught on camera – his “macaca” moment. Webb can’t expect lightning to strike twice.

Even the more high-profile Democrats in the Senate up for reelection next time could face a strong headwind. Claire McCaskill of Missouri may get a rematch with the man she replaced, former Sen. Jim Talent (R). Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, is certainly in the Republican bull's-eye. But if the Republicans fall one vote short of a majority in Tuesday’s election, it’s possible they persuade Senator Nelson to jump to their side and get their majority now.

Also potentially vulnerable are swing-state Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Bill Nelson of Florida, and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, plus blue-staters Jon Tester of Montana, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico. Some older members, including Senators Kohl, Nelson of Florida, and Dianne Feinstein of California, may opt to retire.

Joe Lieberman of Connecticut – one of the Democratic-caucusing independents – could face a tough time in 2012, if he seeks reelection. He actively campaigned for Republican nominee John McCain in 2008. According to a Quinnipiac Poll taken a year ago, 51 percent of Connecticut voters view Senator Lieberman as a Republican. He can expect a major challenge from his left in this blue state.

It’s not just incumbent Democrats (or quasi-Democrats) who are vulnerable. Some of the 10 Republicans up in 2012 will have to watch their right flanks during primary season: The tea party of Maine already has its sights on the moderate Olympia Snowe. Orrin Hatch of Utah has to be careful, especially after fellow Utah Sen. Bob Bennett (R) lost his shot at reelection amid a tea party revolt at the state GOP convention last May. Richard Lugar of Indiana is another old-school Republican, moderate on some issues, like gun control, who could find trouble on his right.

Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts, who won a special election in January to finish the remainder of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s term, faces reelection in 2012. While he won with tea party backing, he has proved to be a moderate, which could invite a primary challenge from his right. If defeated by a conservative, that could help the Democrats retake this blue-state seat.

But in the meantime, all these Republicans nervously protecting their right flank could deprive President Obama of interlocutors in areas where he feels bipartisanship is beneficial.

Another big question is what happens with the tea party after Election Day. Many activists say they intend to keep pushing for conservative, constitutional principles in policymaking, and recruiting like-minded candidates to challenge establishment office-holders. But it’s always risky to predict the future based on the past. Whether the movement can maintain its potency – and defeat as many establishment politicians – in the 2012 cycle remains an open question.

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