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The Most Endangered Senate Seats in 2012

Democrats have many more seats to defend (23-10), but several GOP moderates may be exposed to primary challenges.

by
Adam Graham

Bio

November 9, 2010 - 12:00 am

The 2010 election campaign is over, but 2012 is nearly upon us. Within weeks, we will know the candidates for president, and within months, preparations will begin for the 2012 Senate races. Which Senate seats are likely to be in play? Some of this will depend on how the next Congress shakes out, as well as what retirements occur, but several senators are already in danger.

Republican in danger of general election loss:

Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) shocked the political world by winning the election to replace Ted Kennedy. He immediately became the most vulnerable incumbent up for re-election in 2012. Brown has not pleased conservatives with his votes for bills like the financial reform package, but he may convince voters he’s been the independent voice he promised he’d be when they elected him to the Senate. He is strong on fund-raising, with $6 million on hand. However, Democrats have a wide array of potential candidates to hurl at Brown.

Republicans in danger of a primary or convention defeat:

Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) has served six terms and is at risk of a Tea Party challenge. Senator Lugar has made a career of being praised by Democrats, notably President Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign. Lugar could face a strong challenge from Representative-elect Marlin Stutzman (R-IN), who finished second to Senator Dan Coats in the Republican Senate primary.

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) also has served six terms and is also at risk of a Tea Party challenge. He does have an 89% career ACU rating, which makes him far more conservative than Lugar. However, the anti-establishment undercurrent in Utah led to the ouster of Senator Bob Bennett at the state Republican Party convention last summer. That said, Hatch has done less to rile conservatives than Bennett or Lugar. He will likely hang on to his seat unless he is opposed by rising star Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT).

Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) faces major discontent from Republicans after backing President Obama’s stimulus and supporting the Senate Finance Committee’s health care bill. A Public Policy Polling survey in September showed 63% of Maine Republicans wanted to dump Snowe, but no apparent challengers have the gravitas to win the general election. After Delaware U.S. Senate candidate Christie O’Donnell’s loss, the hunger for an “anybody but Snowe” campaign may dampen.

Senator John Ensign (R-NV) has to be considered severely endangered due to a scandal surrounding an extramarital affair. Unlike the prostitution scandal involving re-elected Senator David Vitter (R-LA), Ensign’s scandal may not be easily dismissed due to the payment of $96,000 that many allege to be hush money. Nevada Republicans showed their distaste for politicians with soap opera-like family lives when they tossed out Governor Jim Gibbons (R-NV) in the Republican primary this year. Ensign is likewise vulnerable to a defeat in the primary. If he somehow makes it past the Republican primary, he’ll become a top Democratic target in the fall.

Democrats in danger of general election defeat:

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) has to be considered vulnerable after the Republican wave swept the GOP into the governor’s mansion. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI), as a member of the House leadership, could raise serious funds to challenge the two-term Democrat.

A poll conducted for the Daily Kos in August showed Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) with a 40% approval rating. Not great numbers for a senator running for re-election in a swing state full of strong candidates, such as former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and Representative Todd Akin (R-MO).

Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) narrowly defeated former Senator Conrad Burns with 49% in 2006. While Barack Obama made Montana close with three campaign stops in 2008, the state went overwhelmingly for Bush in 2004, and that may make Tester’s ObamaCare vote a big issue. The state mood may be shifting against Democrats, as Republicans captured the state House. Six-term Congressman Denny Rehberg (R-MT) has been discussed as a potential challenger.

After his vote for ObamaCare, Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) was famously booed out of a pizza place in Nebraska. This gives an idea of how far the once-popular governor has fallen. Nelson’s support clinched the passage of ObamaCare, which is an anathema in Nebraska. Barring the mother of all Democratic wave years in 2012, Nelson is finished and may opt to retire. Possible challengers include Governor Dave Heineman and state Attorney General Jon Bruning.

Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) came into office on the strength of the Democratic wave of 2006 and the unpopularity of incumbent Senator Mike DeWine. However, a PPP poll this year showed Brown with a 32% approval rating. Incoming Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor could be a good challenger, provided Governor-elect John Kasich is popular with Ohio voters.

Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) ran as a strong pro-life Democrat, but backed ObamaCare and has been a reliable Democratic vote. A PPP poll this year showed Casey with a 31% approval rating. This makes him a prime target for any of the state’s congressmen.

Senator Jim Webb (D-VA), a former Republican, rode a Democratic wave to a narrow victory in 2006, but PPP found Webb trailing former Senator George Allen (R-VA) in a rematch.

Democrats in danger, if an unlikely candidate runs:

A challenge from former Governor Jeb Bush could endanger Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL).

Governor Linda Lingle passed on a challenge to state political institution Senator Daniel Inouye, but may consider a challenge to the lackluster and beatable Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HA).

Endangered independent:

Polls have shown Senator Joseph Lieberman’s (I-CT) popularity waning. Lieberman’s actions in opposing the public option on health care, but eventually supporting the final bill, have antagonized both the left and right. This leaves him in a position where re-election is highly unlikely. Look for this seat to shift to the Democrats.

Possible retirement:

After the defeat of Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-ND) and the retirement of Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) remains the last Democrat in North Dakota’s formerly all-Democrat delegation. The North Dakota political dynamic that allowed Democrats to represent this solidly red state in Congress since 1986 may have broken down with the passage of ObamaCare. Don’t be surprised if Conrad, like Dorgan, decides to retire, which will open the seat for one of the state’s ambitious statewide officeholders.

The bottom line? Both parties have worries, but Democrats have more of them, as they hold 23 of the 33 seats up in 2012.

Adam Graham is a contributor at Race42012.com and host of the Truth and Hope Report podcast. His personal site is Adam's Blog. He is author of novel, "Tales of the Dim Knight," from Splashdown Books.
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