It’s obviously early in the 2012 cycle, but the good news for Republican chances to retake the Senate is that they already have big-name, experienced candidates gearing up in just about every state that is expected to feature a competitive race. Democrats are gradually increasing their numbers, but some members of their party are already worrying about slow recruitment: Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., wants members of his party to stop waiting for recovering Rep. Gabby Giffords and begin a Senate bid sometime in the next month.
The biggest name isn’t always the best name; just ask Floridians about their Senate primary last year. But an early entry by a popular House member or lawmaker who has already won statewide helps put Republicans’ minds at ease; they can rest assured that barring some surprise twist – like, say, Christine O’Donnell beating Mike Castle in Delaware! – they’ll at least have strong enough candidates in place to make the Democrats earn any Senate wins this year. If you put as many good candidates in as many states as possible, you’re in position to maximize your wins if your party has the wind at its back on Election Day.
First, in the four seats of the retiring Senate Democrats…
Daniel Akaka of Hawaii: Right now, former Rep. Ed Case and State Sen. Donna Mercado Kim are in on the Democrats’ side. The GOP outlook depends heavily on the interest of former two-term Gov. Linda Lingle.
Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico: Democrats have their big name, Rep. Martin Heinrich, with a few other state officials making noises. The GOP has former Rep. Heather Wilson, as well as a few others.
Kent Conrad of North Dakota: Republicans have Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk, who is currently the only candidate who has filed papers.
Jim Webb of Virginia: Republicans have former Governor and Sen. George Allen as well as Jamie Radtke and a few other local figures; Democrats have former Gov. and DNC Chair Tim Kaine.
Elsewhere, 16 Democrat incumbents are currently seeking reelection in 2012. Republicans do not yet have prominent challengers to Dianne Feinstein of California, Tom Carper of Delaware, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin. (There’s some speculation that Kohl might retire.) Republicans are still looking for a top-tier candidate to run for the open seat in Connecticut, where Joe Lieberman is retiring. Of course, in a presidential year, most of those states will be difficult territory even for a strong GOP candidate, with the possible exceptions of West Virginia and Wisconsin.
The states with Democrat incumbents and at least one promising GOP challenger:
Bill Nelson of Florida: Republicans have several candidates, depending on how broadly you define, ‘big-name’: Florida State Senate President Mike Haridopolos, former state Rep. Adam Hasner and former Sen. George LeMieux.
Debbie Stabenow of Michigan: Former Michigan GOP chair Saul Anuzis and Secretary of State Terri Lee Land are considering bids.
Claire McCaskill of Missouri: The GOP options include former state senator and state treasurer Sarah Steelman, as well as former congressional candidate Ed Martin.
Jon Tester of Montana: Rep. Denny Rehberg, who has won multiple times statewide (since his congressional district is the state).
Ben Nelson of Nebraska: Two big names for Republicans: State Attorney General Jon Bruning, state Treasurer Don Stenberg.
Sherrod Brown of Ohio: At least two promising options for Republicans: State Treasurer Josh Mandel and former Secretary of State Ken Blackwell.
Bob Casey, Jr. of Pennsylvania: Obviously not an easy state for Republicans, but if Dicks Sporting Goods CEO Ed Stack is serious about his interest, the he would have the financial resources to give Casey a real race.
There are several states where the GOP chances of victory are pretty small, but they’ve still got interest from a promising candidate or two:
Ben Cardin of Maryland: Obviously a tough state even in non-presidential years, but one of the GOP candidates is Queen Anne’s County Commissioner Eric Wargotz. You may scoff at his 36 percent in last year’s Senate race against Barbara Mikulski, but that’s the highest share of the vote any Republican has gotten against her since 1986.
Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota: None so far, although local Republicans are hoping to see a Michele Bachmann bid.
Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island: He’s not a ‘big name,’ but keep an eye on entrepreneur Barry Hinkley, founder of the software firm Bullhorn.
Bernie Sanders of Vermont: Obviously, this is a very tough seat for the GOP to win, but they have a promising candidate in state Auditor of Accounts Tom Salmon.
Three Republicans are retiring and creating open seat races:
Jon Kyl of Arizona: Republicans have Rep. Jeff Flake, who so far enjoys the field to himself. No Democrat has filed papers; obviously, many Democrats are yearning for a bid by Gabrielle Giffords. Rep. Ed Pastor is reportedly thinking it over.
John Ensign of Nevada: Both parties are likely to nominate an incumbent U.S. House member: Republicans have Rep. Dean Heller; Democrats have Rep. Shelly Berkley.
Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas: Republicans have a small army of candidates: Former state solicitor general Ted Cruz, former Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, current Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones, and former secretary of state Roger Williams.
As revealed this weekend, Texas Democrats are likely to nominate retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez.
Finally, at this point, seven Senate Republicans are seeking re-election; none of them have attracted what most would consider a “top tier” challenger.
Dick Lugar of Indiana: He’s likely to face a tougher challenge in the GOP primary from Richard Mourdock. For the Democrats, there has been talk that Rep. Joe Donnelly may run for Senate, particularly with his House district’s new lines looking less favorable to him. But Donnelly is reportedly also mulling a gubernatorial bid. So far, no Democrats have filed for this race.
Olympia Snowe of Maine: Like Lugar, she has primary opponents already (Scott D’Ambrose and Andrew Ian Dodge) but no Democrat opponent yet.
Scott Brown of Massachusetts: Right now, the biggest-name challenger for the Democrats is Robert Massie, who ran for Lieutenant Governor in 1994. Several members of the state’s House delegation have been mentioned as potential candidates, but none have filed papers yet.
Roger Wicker of Mississippi: No Democrats have filed for the seat yet.
Bob Corker of Tennessee: No Democrats have filed for the seat yet.
Orrin Hatch of Utah: The only Democrat who has filed for the seat is Chris Stout, a Salt Lake City accountant.
John Barrasso of Wyoming: No Democrats have filed for the seat yet.