Eight toughest races for Seante Democrats next year

Posted on May 18, 2011

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Senate Democrats knew that 2012 wasn’t going to be a picnic. Republicans need to gain only four of 23 Democrat-held seats up for election next year to take control of the upper chamber. And President Obama’s low approval ratings in swings states always meant a tough test.

But the Democratic Party had been doing a good job of limiting the size of the playing field. No longer. Facing the prospect of a bruising presidential-year race, six Democratic incumbents have so far opted to retire rather than run again.

With the announcement this week that four-term incumbent Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin was walking away, there are now four vacant seats in swing or red states: Wisconsin, Virginia, North Dakota and New Mexico. That’s means millions more dollars that Democrats must pour into defending their turf.

The other two retirements, Sen. Daniel Akaka in Hawaii and Sen. Joe Lieberman in Connecticut, are unlikely to produce much trouble for the party. Like the two Republicans retiring, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, Akaka and Lieberman leave Democrats with easy territory to defend.

When the cycle started, Democrats were looking at defending nine seats in their party’s control. Now, the map has grown to at least 13. That list will shrink or grow depending on how Obama fares. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, for example, go from likely winners to likely losers if Obama and the economy are still in the doldrums next year.

Democrats are looking at a baker’s dozen of tough races and 10 safe seats while Republicans, by chance, have a total of 12 seats up for election this year and only two incumbents – Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada – are in any perceivable danger. Brown is in much stronger position than expected and Democrats have struggled to find a top-tier challenger. Heller is brand new to the Senate and will have little advantage of incumbency, but to Republicans, anyone other than the scandal-soaked former occupant of the office, John Ensign, looks like a four aces.

As Democrats begin the process of triage – deciding which seats can’t be saved in order to preserve resources for expensive races in competitive states – they can at least take heart in knowledge that their current problems are a result of past success. If Democrats hadn’t been so successful in 2006 by running against George W. Bush and the Iraq war, they wouldn’t be spread so thin this year.

Now, on to the Power Politics Senate Democrats misery index. Here are, ranked by degree of difficulty, the eight toughest races for Democrats next year:

1) Montana – It’s already getting ugly in Montana. Sen. Jon Tester and state Republicans had their first dustup when the senator got into a scrape with a GOP campaign video stalker in a Missoula parking lot. The videographer says Tester tried to run him over after the campaign operative stuck his camera in the senator’s face. The Tester team says the he was just backing up, albeit with vigor. Tester won his 2006 race amid a Democratic wave and against a weakened incumbent in Sen. Conrad Burns – and it was still a narrow win. Now, with Montana back to its bright-red roots, Tester is squirming over his votes for President Obama’s national health care law and global-warming fees. Rep. Denny Rehberg, who already represents the entire state, has a clear path to the Republican nomination and strong fundraising potential.

2) North Dakota – Freshman Rep. Rick Berg is taking the plunge into a Senate run after less than five months in office. That may be a little cheeky by most political standards, but the retirement of longtime Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad is something of a Republican bonanza. The state has already been trending Republican and Democrats are still without a big-name candidate.

3) Missouri – Missouri Rep. Todd Akin, a conservative five-term incumbent from suburban St. Louis, has entered the Republican field looking to unseat Sen. Claire McCaskill, joining former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman. While Republicans aren’t enthused at the prospect of what could be a very rough primary, they certainly like their chances against McCaskill. Aside from the scandals surrounding a plane owned by the freshman Senator and her developer husband, MCaskill is mostly bogged down by the strong anti-Obama sentiment in Missouri. She was one of his primary spokeswomen during the 2008 campaign and will struggle to distance herself from the president.

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