Having barely caught its breath after 2010’s watershed midterm elections, the American public already finds itself in the thick of the 2012 campaign season. While the re-election of President Obama will dominate headlines in next year’s political cycle, one of the most fascinating battles will actually be for control of the Senate. With a tenuous 51 to 47 majority, the Democratic Party faces the daunting task of defending 23 seats, many of which are on deep red turf. Meanwhile, Republicans only need to defend 10 seats, the vast majority of which they will win without breaking a sweat. Mitch McConnell is probably already measuring the drapes for his new majority leader office.
The Senate cycle was kicked into high gear in the past few weeks by the retirements of five high-profile senators. Their decisions to depart the upper chamber are telling, and the resulting battles to replace them make a political junkie’s mouth water.
After an embarrassing failure to dethrone Governor Rick Perry (R-Texas) in last years’ GOP primary, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) is calling it quits. Despite having a solid conservative record, many grassroots Texan conservatives saw her as too moderate for their liking, not to mention a relic of the Washington establishment. Her retirement saves her a costly and bloody battle for renomination in this reddest of states. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst (R-Texas) has the cash, connections and statewide recognition to waltz into this seat. Yet he faces major hurdles from those who see him as Hutchison 2.0. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has backed two Dewhurst challengers, African-American former Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams and Latino former Solicitor General Ted Cruz, catering to the party’s rightmost wing. Texas law requires a nominee to have over 50 percent of the primary vote, so get ready to watch Williams and Cruz slug it out to take on Dewhurst in a run-off.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl’s (R-Ariz.) decision to vacate his seat surprised many. Kyl is a widely respected, low-key operator, who has somewhat remained in the shadows behind his senior colleague John McCain (R.-Ariz.). GOP Rep. Jeff Flake has already declared his candidacy for the seat. Young, dynamic and a rock-solid fiscal conservative, Flake is the frontrunner in both the primary and general elections. Former Governor and current Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano could make this race interesting if she pursues the Democrat nomination, as would Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who had been keenly interested in a Senate bid before her attempted assassination last month. Nevertheless, Arizona is overwhelmingly likely to send a Republican as Kyl’s replacement.
Connecticut’s “Independent Democrat” Senator Joe Lieberman simply won’t find the requisite numbers to get re-elected. His fluke 2006 re-election as an independent notwithstanding, he now finds himself largely vilified by left and right alike. Little will change in this blue state, where Rep. Chris Murphy is the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination against ex-Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz. The GOP may put up a fight with former Rep. Rob Simmons, or 2010 failed Senate candidate Linda McMahon, but they face long odds.
With the 2010 defeat of Rep. Earl Pomeroy and retirement of Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) was left alone as the last of the long-time Democratic “Three Amigos” of North Dakota. His retirement allows him to focus his efforts exclusively on chairing the Senate Budget Committee, where a knock-down-drag-out fight is brewing. North Dakota’s GOP bench is deep, but most of the chatter has focused on freshman Rep. Rick Berg. Between the two parties though, don’t expect this to be a down-to-the-wire race.
Finally, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) is retiring after a single term in the Senate. Disgusted by retail politics and tired of the Washington crowd, Webb rationalized his decision by saying he’s accomplished everything he set out to do in 2006. Most likely to succeed him is the man he defeated, former Governor and Sen. George Allen (R-Va.). A presidential aspirant until his infamous “macaca” gaffe made him lose by a hair, Allen is gunning for his old seat and should easily dispatch with nominal tea party opposition in the primary. Democratic National Committee Chair and ex-Governor Tim Kaine would be a formidable foe for him, but if Kaine passes, that charge might fall to Tom Perriello, a recently defeated, spunky and tenacious one-term congressman. More than any contest in the country, the outcome of this race may hinge on President Obama’s success in winning the traditionally red commonwealth again.
All in all, 2012 will welcome a dynamic new guard of senators to Washington — and these five diverse states will most likely prove representative of the national political dynamic.
Sam Dulik is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at[email protected]. QUORUM CALL appears every other Friday.
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