The 2012 US Senate races, a preview

The 2012 US Senate races, a preview

By Adam Alan Isackson

In 2012 Republicans need a net gain of 3 or 4 senate seats, depending on the results of the 2012 presidential election, to wrestle control of the United States senate away from Democrats. Because of the huge gains Democrats made in the 2006 midterms not only do Republicans have the significant advantage that 23 of the 33 seats up for grabs are currently held by Democrats but many of those seats are currently held by first term Democrats in Republican leaning states.

Of those 23 Democrat seats currently held by Democrats 10 can genuinely be called vulnerable. In contrast only 4 seats held by Republicans are potentially vulnerable. Below is a brief synopsis of what will likely be the 14 most competitive races. Barring unforeseeable events the other 19 seats aren’t likely to be competitive so I won’t be profiling them in this article.

North Dakota

Current Incumbent – Kent Conrad ( D )

Analysis – The retirement of Senator Conrad, the changing nature of the state and the strong possibility that Democrats will find it difficult to recruit a serious candidate makes this the single seat most likely to change parties.  Among North Dakota Republicans in particular there’s a lot of interest in this seat and several current and former elected officials are seriously considering a run. Most notably the first significant candidate to jump in the race is Congressman Rick Berg, who after unseating incumbent Earl Pomeroy by 10 points in 2010 for North Dakota’s lone congressional seat has to be considered a strong contender.


Current Incumbent – Jon Tester ( D )

Analysis – Senator Tester, who defeated incumbent Senator Conrad Burns by less than a percentage point in 2006, is running for a second term. Republicans have two potentially strong candidates in Congressman Denny Rehberg, a former Lieutenant Governor who is serving his fifth term as Montana’s sole congressman and 2 term former Governor Marc Racicot. The limited polling available at this stage in the election cycle has shown that both men would be highly competitive. All things considered Democrats will likely have a tough time defending this seat in 2012.


Current Incumbent – Ben Nelson ( D )

Analysis – Senator Nelson, who is running for his 3rd term, faces a steep challenge in his bid for reelection. His job approval remains low and his positions on issues such as Obama Care will likely pose a serious challenge for him to overcome. He will likely have to face off against either current Attorney General Jon Bruning, or former Attorney General and newly elected State Treasurer Don Stenberg. Both candidates would be well positioned to win in 2012 with Tea Party backed Bruning likely being the stronger of the two candidates. A PPP (D) poll from January had Nelson trailing Bruning by 11 and Stenberg by 4 points respectively. More recent polling is unavailable.


Current Incumbent – Claire McCaskill ( D )

Analysis – Senator McCaskill, who defeated incumbent Senator Jim Talent by a narrow margin in 2006, has decided to seek a second term. So far 2 credible candidates have announced their intention to run against Senator McCaskill; Congressman Todd Akin, who has served in congress since 2001, and Sarah Steelman, a former state treasurer and a close second place finisher in the 2008 gubernatorial Republican primary. McCaskill’s job approval ratings are pretty mediocre and early polling has shown both Akin and Steelman being capable of running a tight race. This should be considered a legitimate tossup.


Current Incumbent – Jim Webb ( D )

Analysis – Senator Webb has decided not to run for reelection setting up what will likely be one of the most intense senate races in the country. Democrat Tim Kaine, former DNC chair and former Virginia governor, will almost certainly be facing off against former Republican Senator and former Virginia Governor George Allen.  Early polling has been rather extensive in this race and has shown a tight race between the two political giants. The big story here is probably whether George Allen, who was defeated by the narrowest of margins in 2006, can make a political comeback after what could only be described as a political blow up surrounding his racially insensitive comments in 2006. Because of the “wild card” nature of George Allen and Tim Kaine’s history of popularity in the state Kaine probably has a narrow advantage. This is another race that very well could be decided by what will be an intense presidential campaign in the state.

West Virginia

Current Incumbent – Joe Manchin ( D )

Analysis- Senator Manchin, who won a special election in 2010 to complete the term of Sen. Byrd who died in office, will be seeking his first full term. Manchin, who was elected governor twice, and defeated Republican businessman John Raese by 10 points in the 2010 election should be a favorite to win reelection despite a West Virginia electorate that should overwhelmingly support the Republican presidential nominee. It remains to be seen if Republicans are going to be able to field a serious candidate. Representative Capito, who is widely popular in the state and could’ve given Manchin a tough fight, declined to run in 2010 and declined a gubernatorial run in 2011. Without Capito this race could quickly move out of the competitive column.  A better bet may be in trying to convince the senator to switch parties. He ran an anti Obama campaign in 2010 and since his election has at times been a vocal critic of the president.


Current Incumbent – Herb Kohl ( D )

Analysis- Senator Kohl, who is serving his fourth term, has decided against running for reelection. There has been some speculation that former Democrat Sen. Russ Feingold, who was defeated in his reelection bid in 2010, might run but so far all of the indicators have that possibility as a coin flip at best. On the Republican side former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who has said that he will run, should be a heavy favorite to win the Republican nomination. If Feingold doesn’t run Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin should be the favorite to win the Democrat nomination. Either way this is a race to watch. With Feingold Democrats probably have a narrow advantage, without him Thompson is probably a slight favorite.

New Mexico

Current Incumbent – Jeff Bingaman ( D )

Analysis- Senator Bingaman, currently serving his fifth term, announced in February that he will not be running for reelection. In this race the field has developed rather quickly with the most likely general election scenario being a matchup between former Republican Congresswoman Heather Wilson and Democrat Congressman Martin Heinrich. Wilson was Heinrich’s predecessor and was poised to run against him in 2008 until she decided on a senate run, which she subsequently lost in the primary. The 1st district, which she represented and successfully defended through 2006, demographically is a Democrat district. This is likely another tossup.


Current Incumbent – Bill Nelson ( D )

Analysis- Sen. Nelson is running for a third term and is potentially vulnerable with reelect numbers consistently in the 40’s. On the Republican side the field is wide open and it would be hard to speculate on who the eventual nominee will be at this point. George LeMieux, who was appointed by Governor Charlie Crist to serve the remainder of Mel Martinez’s seat, is running but will likely have a hard time winning the Republican primary in the aftermath of the 2010 senate race. This could be another hard-fought Republican primary setting up a tight general election battle.


Current Incumbent – Sherrod Brown ( D )

Analysis- Since his 12 point victory over incumbent Senator Mike DeWine in 2006 Senator Brown has built up a solidly liberal voting record. While earlier in the year this looked like a race to watch Brown has since solidified his support and appears to be well positioned against a Republican field that has been slow to develop. So far the big news in this race is that Senator Dewine, and former State Treasurer and Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, widely considered the front runner for the Republican nomination, have decided not to run. Current State Treasurer Josh Mandel, who was just elected last November after serving 2 terms in the state legislature, has yet to declare but appears to be the early favorite in an otherwise weak field.


Current Incumbent – Dean Heller ( R )

Analysis- With the resignation of former Senator John Ensign, Congressman Dean Heller was appointed to fill out the rest of Ensign’s term and has since announced a run for Senate. This is one race where we can be fairly certain who the players are going to be. Heller should be a shoe in to face Congresswoman Shelley Berkley, who represents most of the city of Las Vegas. Early polling has shown this race as a likely tossup with both candidates having similar approval/disapproval ratings. Both candidates have long records of public service; Berkley having served in congress since 1999 and Heller as congressman, and Nevada Secretary of State. As much as any Senate race in the country this race could very well come down to down to which party wins the state of Nevada in the 2012 presidential race.


Current Incumbent – Scott Brown ( R )

Analysis – Not too long ago the darling of conservatives due to his upset victory over Attorney General Martha Coakley, Brown has taken a much more moderate approach than most conservatives would like during his short tenure as Massachusetts senator. Some discontent from conservatives aside however it seems to be working for him with Massachusetts voters. In what little polling is available his approval rating stands above 60% and in all likely potential matchups he has positioned himself well for victory in 2012. Massachusetts however remains one of the most liberal states in the country and it wouldn’t take much to make this a competitive race. Democrats aren’t going to give up this opportunity without a fight and they should have no trouble fielding a serious opponent. Expect a ton of negative attack ads aimed at driving up Brown’s negatives as the exclusive Democrat strategy in this race.


Current Incumbent – Olympia Snowe ( R )

Analysis – Senator Snowe now says that she is running for another term and will vigorously seek the Republican nomination. The real threat to her reelection, and a Republican hold, lies inside the GOP primary battle. So far two Republicans have announced their intentions to run against her but neither seems to be a credible candidate.  If Snowe faces a serious primary battle and loses the nomination early polling has shown that she could run as an independent and win a 3 way race, presumptively as a Republican caucusing Independent. In all the years of effort by Democrats to get her to flip parties Senator Snowe has remained a loyal member of the Republican caucus, her voting record aside. This should be a hold for Republicans unless Senator Snowe is defeated in the primary and decides not to run as an independent, in which case a serious Democrat nominee would be the favorite.


Current Incumbent – John Kyl ( R )

Analysis- Senator John Kyl is retiring and Republicans should have a strong candidate in Congressman Jeff Flake, the presumptive front runner. Earlier this year there was a lot of talk that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords may be able to recover in time to mount a serious threat with a senate run however most analysts believe the odds of that happening are becoming increasingly long. Without Giffords, Democrats are going to have a tough time finding a viable candidate.  Former Congressman J.D. Hayworth, who mounted an unsuccessful primary campaign against Senator John McCain in 2010, could run, but after that shellacking it’s clear that he would face a tough road to the nomination. This race is probably only in play if Democrats are able to pull off a “desperation move” and convince Giffords to go for it, health issues aside.

About the author

Adam Isackson currently resides in Tacoma, Washington where he has managed, consulted worked on and volunteered for countless campaigns since the 90’s. Most recently managing the campaigns of now State Rep. Jan Angel (R), who took an open (D) seat in ’08, and who was resoundingly reelected in 2010. If you have any questions, comments, or interest in political services you can contact the author @adam_isackson@yahoo.com or by calling and leaving a message @ 253-678-1707

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