Sen. Kent Conrad’s decision to pass on a shot at a fifth term in North Dakota Tuesday gives a serious boost to Republicans’ chances of regaining the Senate majority in 2012, even though the election is a full 22 months away.
At this early vantage point, North Dakota joins six other states that appear to be toss-ups at best for the Democrats — and the GOP needs to snag only four seats to win control.
“They’re in the catbird’s seat right now. The numbers favor them. I think if you’re a Republican you like your chances. They’d have to see a substantial collapse to not gain seats in the next election,” said David DiMartino, who worked at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the 2000 cycle.
Conrad’s decision immediately places the party on defense in another red-leaning state where emboldened Republicans appear positioned for a takeover. It also adds North Dakota to the list of tough anticipated races in Virginia, Montana, Missouri, Nebraska, Florida and Ohio.
“That’s a pickup,” declared GOP operative Chris LaCivita, who served as political director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee last cycle. “Whoever the Democrats snooker into running for that seat is going to have a hell of a time raising money because the conventional wisdom is they don’t have a chance.”
Conrad’s announcement marks the first retirement among Senate Democrats of the cycle — but it’s far from clear if it will be the last.
Shortly after Conrad’s bombshell, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman — an independent who caucuses with Democrats — said he would reveal his 2012 intentions in Stamford Wednesday, and sources says he is unlikely to run.
If Lieberman steps aside, the Nutmeg State could actually become a bright spot for Democrats, enhancing their chances at retaining the seat. On the other hand, a three-way race with Lieberman as an independent could split Democrats and allow a Republican to be competitive.
In addition to Lieberman, the reelection plans of at least a five of the 23 Democrats who face voters next year remain up in the air, potentially creating an even wider-than-anticipated playing field for the resurgent GOP.
Virginia Sen. Jim Webb has done little to indicate he’s readying for a second term, Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson has said he’s “on course” to run, but has made no final decision and New Mexico’s Jeff Bingaman has not yet made up his mind on a sixth Senate campaign.
Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl has made no commitment to a 2012 contest. And while Hawaii’s junior senator, Daniel Akaka, has indicated he wants to pursue a fourth term, there’s ample speculation about whether a challenge from former Gov. Linda Lingle could force him into retirement.
Furthermore, in the 10 states where Republicans are defending seats in 2012, Barack Obama only carried three of them during the 2008 presidential campaign — Maine, Nevada and Massachusetts.
The Democrats’ best opportunity to go on offense appears to be in the Bay State. But even there, Public Policy Polling pegged Sen. Scott Brown’s approval rating at an impressive 53 percent just last month.
And in Texas, where Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is planning to step down, the long list of GOP replacements all hold double-digit leads over any Democrat, according to PPP.
One North Dakota Democrat who has been long steeped in party politics said the fundamental question will be how to fund competitive candidates in races for governor, House and Senate. “I don’t know how it is done,” said the Democratic operative.
Fundraising could be another disturbing harbinger for Democrats on defense: Very few vulnerable incumbents have amassed a war chest that would scare away a GOP challenger.
Webb, who won his 2006 race by fewer than 10,000 votes, has stockpiled just $470,000 in the bank if he chooses to run. Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, who is mulling a Senate bid in Montana, has more cash on hand than Sen. Jon Tester, according to the most recent public campaign finance reports.
Beyond the most appealing battlegrounds, Republican operatives point out that GOP gains in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania last cycle could metastasize as a presidential campaign develops.
“They have 23 seats, they’re going to have to write some off. And if they say anything else, they’re full of crap,” said LaCivita referring to the DSCC.