Lieberman’s exit sparks Senate conjecture

Are other lawmakers ready to go?

The retirement of independent Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman marks the third such announcement in recent days and has sparked widespread speculation on which other senators might also bow out in the face of tough 2012 re-elections bids.

Control of the Senate likely hangs in the balance, as Democrats must defend 23 seats — including Mr. Lieberman’s — while Republicans have just 10 incumbents on the line. With 47 seats today, the GOP needs a net gain of just four to flip the Senate to their control.

Mr. Lieberman Wednesday confirmed widespread reports that he was stepping down, but denied it was because he faced a fierce fight for a fifth term in office.

Speaking to a group of supporters at a Stamford hotel built over his immigrant grandparents’ cold-water flat, Mr. Lieberman, who has survived squeaker elections in the past, noted the predictions of a tough race and joked, “So what else is new?”

Still, Mr. Lieberman had become unpopular among members of his former Democratic Party, with whom he usually voted, and likely will face fire from both parties in 2012 largely because he supported the war in Iraq and endorsed GOP Sen. John McCain over Democrat Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential races.

He joins Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota as the only incumbents to date who have confirmed plans to quit. But the announcement spurred fresh speculation over who might be next.

Among the Democrats likely to face tough opposition and who have not yet signaled their intentions are Sens. Jim Webb of Virginia, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin.

David Heller, president of the Democratic strategy firm Main Street Communications, said Wednesday that Mr. Webb’s situation was different from that of Mr. Lieberman.

After losing the Democratic primary in 2006, Mr. Lieberman left the party and took nearly 50 percent of the three-way field in the general election. By contrast, Mr. Webb pulled off a tough upset win that year over Republican George Allen.

“Nobody had Jim Webb winning,” Mr. Heller said. “The perception was that George Allen was eventually running for president.”

Mr. Allen, a former Virginia governor and U.S. senator, is expected within the next several days to announce whether he will run, but will have to overcome a primary challenge from tea party candidate Jamie Radtke for the right to face Mr. Webb in a rematch.

Mr. Heller said that’s good news for Democrats.

“Every Democrat would rather face a tea party guy than Allen,” he said. “The Senate is a different from the House, in the level or scrutiny and amount of money. Show me a tea party candidate with enough money to get on TV and start carpet-bombing with ads in April” like Senate candidates did in 2010.

Republicans acknowledge that a race without Mr. Webb improves their chances in a swing state such as Virginia, which in 2008 voted for a Democratic president for the first time since 1964. But they say they are not betting on the Democrat pulling out.

Jim Webb is a fighter,” said Republican strategist Tom Edmonds. “I fully expect him to stay in this thing. Losing an incumbent is always hard, even if Democrats get [former Gov.] Tim Kaine. It just provides a little something extra for the challenger.”

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