- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Rising GOP star Rep. Paul Ryan is taking a pass on next year’s open Senate race in Wisconsin, but that doesn’t make the contest any easier for the Democratic Party, which is facing an uphill slog in a slew of battles across the Midwest.

Mr. Ryan’s decision to stay in the House as the chairman of the powerful budget committee likely clears the path in Wisconsin for former GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson in the scramble to replace Sen. Herb Kohl - one of several Democrats who’ve chosen to retire rather than run again next year.

Those retirements, the emergence of well-known GOP contenders like Mr. Thompson, and the precarious positions of some incumbents has complicated the Democrats’ task of holding on to their slim Senate majority in 2012.

Of the 33 Senate seats up for grabs next year, the Democrats will have to defend 23.

Farther down the map, in Missouri, veteran congressman W. Todd Akin on Tuesday added his name to the list of Republican candidates vying to oust Sen. Claire McCaskill, perhaps the most vulnerable Democrat in the upper chamber.

And on Monday, Rep. Rick Berg, North Dakota Republican, rolled out his candidacy for the seat now held by Kent Conrad, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Budget Committee who also has decided to call it quits at the end of his term.

“At the end of the day, Republicans are probably better off with all three of these things happening,” said Jennifer E. Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report. “Democrats’ biggest problem is the lack of opportunity. With only 10 Republican seats up, [Democrats’] focus is really going to be on holding their own.”

She added, “Republicans at this point are favored to get the majority, but it’s not a done deal yet.”

Republicans hope to build on their electoral success last year, where they rode a wave of voter dissatisfaction with Washington and President Obama to grab control of the House and pick up six seats in the Senate.

Heading into next year, Republicans appear poised to tag Democrats with the big spending label that has worked for them in the past. Democrats, meanwhile, hope that the economy will show signs of improvement, including the unemployment rate, and are also expected to play up the decision-making role Mr. Obama took in the raid that led to the death of Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.

To take the upper chamber in the coming election, Republicans need a three- or four-state swing, depending on whether Mr. Obama wins a second term, thereby giving Vice President Joseph R. Biden the tie-breaking voter in the upper chamber.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said Democrats know this time around their Senate majority is “greatly threatened” because, of the dozen or so seats that are likely to be truly competitive, Democrats hold about 10.

By Mr. Sabato’s early count, Republicans are likely to pick up Mr. Conrad’s seat in North Dakota and are well-positioned to take out Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Jon Tester of Montana and McCaskill of Missouri. Other possible Republican pickups include Virginia, New Mexico and now Wisconsin, following Mr. Kohl’s announcement last week that he would not seek a fifth term.

His decision represents the biggest recent blow to Democrats’ chances of running the show in the Senate for another two years.

“The Democrats are going to have a harder time holding that seat now that Kohl is not there,” said Barry C. Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin. “It was his to lose, and now it’s up for grabs.”

Mr. Kohl’s retirement left many thinking that Mr. Ryan would set his sights on the seat. But the Wisconsin Republican put an end to the speculation Tuesday.

Being “chairman of the House Budget Committee allows me to have a greater impact in averting this debt-fueled economic crisis than if I were to run for the United States Senate,” he said.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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