Just six months ago, Senate Republicans seemed poised to march to victory in 2012 and easily retake control of the upper chamber of Congress, but some successful Democratic recruiting and some unintentional help from the tea party in recent months have made next year’s overall contest more competitive.
Numbers alone mean the Democrats still face very tough odds, since they are defending 23 of the 33 Senate seats up for election next year, and few seats held by Republicans are considered competitive races for now.
Republicans must pick up just three or four seats to retake the chamber, depending on who wins the presidency, and the economy and President Obama’s sagging poll numbers aren’t likely to do Democrats any favors on down-ballot races.
But in recent months, Democrats have bolstered their position by amassing early campaign cash and fielding a handful of candidates whose campaigns have caught fire and are positioned to run hard against Republicans.
Despite their stronger position heading into 2012, Republicans don’t want to leave anything to chance and are touting their own recruiting successes.
“This may be the first cycle where I can look at it and say both parties did really well in recruiting,” said Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst who handicaps races in his biweekly Rothenberg Political Report. “Usually one party does really well, and the other can’t throw a baseball into the ocean.”
Republicans have top-tier challengers to take on Democratic incumbents in the red states of Montana, Nebraska and North Dakota, but they have yet to find strong candidates to run against incumbents such as Sen. Maria Cantwell in Washington state, Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota and Joe Manchin III in West Virginia.
A handful of Republicans are running against first-term Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania, but there are no real standouts, Mr. Rothenberg said. The same can be said of Missouri, where a number of GOP candidates are vying for a chance to take out a weakened freshman Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Democrats, meanwhile, have lured top-tier candidates to run in Massachusetts, Nevada and Virginia, but have yet to find a strong challenger to Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine or for the seat held by Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, who is retiring. Earlier this month, they also lost their best hope in Texas, where incumbent Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is retiring, when retired Lt. Gen. Ric Sanchez dropped out of the race citing poor fundraising and “personal challenges.”
In Massachusetts, Democrats scored a major coup by convincing the headline-grabbing Elizabeth Warren to run. Ms. Warren — a Harvard professor who oversaw the 2008 U.S. banking bailout and conceived of and pushed for creation of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — has energized party activists concerned about Republican Sen. Scott P. Brown’s ability to cement his hold on the seat long held by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Democrats also are eyeing Nevada as a possible pickup, playing on the still-lingering resentment about Republican Sen. John Ensign’s sex scandal. Nevada’s Republican governor appointed former Rep. Dean Heller to replace Mr. Ensign in May, but his short-lived status as an incumbent doesn’t seem to be giving him an edge. He is running an uphill race against longtime Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, who represents Las Vegas, the most populous part of the state.
And in Virginia, seen as an ideal chance for a Republican pickup since first-term Democratic Sen. Jim Webb decided to retire, Tim Kaine, the state’s former governor and ex-chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is proving a formidable opponent for George Allen, a former governor and senator.
Republican Senate strategists are brushing aside recent Democratic crowing about their recruiting success.
“I find it rather absurd that there’s victory laps being run — especially over recruiting a candidate in Massachusetts, one of the bluest of states,” said Brian Nick, a former strategist for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “I’m not blown away by the Democrats’ recruiting. Their backs are very much against the wall in terms of the entire landscape.”
Republicans are putting more states in play than even previously planned, Mr. Nick contends, citing rumblings that Marc Cenedella of Ladders.com, a job-hunting site, in recent days is being viewed as an increasingly serious challenger to Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York.
“Democrats are already way overextended,” Mr. Nick said. “There’s just not enough resources to protect these people. If there are even more [GOP] challengers than expected, the dams are going to break.”
Ten months is a long time, but Republicans say that even in the worst of circumstances, they are poised to pick up seats in North Dakota and Nebraska.
Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota is retiring, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is fielding Heidi Heitkamp, a former state attorney general, against Republican Rep. Rick Berg. Even though Ms. Heitkamp is a respected figure, she will face serious hurdles in a state where Republicans control all 12 statewide offices and two of the three federal seats.
In Nebraska, both sides are waiting for a decision from Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson on whether he will retire. If he does, there are several strong Republican candidates, including popular Gov. Dave Heineman, who could jump in and run away with the race.
But Democrats and some political analysts say the tea party and Republican infighting could hurt the party’s chances in Nebraska and elsewhere.
Candidates in the crowded Republican Nebraska primary, including state Attorney General Jon Bruning, state Treasurer Don Stenberg, state Sen. Deb Fischer and investment adviser Pat Flynn, are scrambling to win the tea party seal of approval, but they may be alienating less-conservative November voters in the process.
Republican primary candidates in Missouri, including former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, Rep. W. Todd Akin and business executive John Brunner, also have strong tea party credentials that Democrats say could turn off voters in a general election contest against Mrs. McCaskill.
The tea party also is providing headaches for Republican incumbents or establishment-backed figures who would have been considered safe bets in previous election cycles.
Tea party candidates also are challenging six-term Sen. Richard G. Lugar in Indiana, and Mr. Lugar warned Sunday that a primary defeat for him at the hands of state Treasurer Richard Mourdock may cost the party the Indiana seat and possibly control of the chamber as a whole.
“Republicans who are running for re-election ought to be supported by people who want to see” a Republican Senate majority, Mr. Lugar said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
He warned of the precedents of Delaware, Nevada and Colorado in 2010, when tea party-backed candidates won primaries over establishment-backed hopefuls but then did badly in general elections that analysts had seen as good chances for Republican pickups.
“There were people who claim that they wanted somebody who was more of their tea party aspect, but in doing so they killed off the Republican chances for majority,” Mr. Lugar said. “This is one of the reasons we have a minority in the Senate right now.”
Tea party favorites also are opposing former Rep. Pete Hoekstra in Michigan for backing the bank bailouts and former Gov. Tommy G. Thompson in Wisconsin for supporting Mr. Obama’s health care bill and adding 8,500 workers to the state payroll while in office.
“There is an ongoing battle between the Republican establishment and the tea party with respect to recruiting,” said Matt Miller, a former communications strategist for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
But Republicans say the tea party-related infighting is being overplayed in the press, considering the large number of seats in play for Democrats and the president’s vulnerability at this point in the race.
Even though he predicts Mr. Obama will prevail in November, Mr. Miller points out that Senate races often operate separately from the presidential race.
“In 2000, Senate Democrats picked up four or fives seats when Al Gore lost,” Mr. Miller said. “I wouldn’t put odds on it, but Democrats have a very good chance of retaining the Senate.”