Republican chances of winning back the Senate next year improved Wednesday with Sen. Jim Webb’s (D-Va.) decision not to seek reelection.
Webb’s announcement means that his highly anticipated rematch with Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) will not take place. Even though Allen is expected to face a GOP primary, he’s now the favorite to win.
Part of the reason Republicans are favored to win is that Democrats don’t have a strong candidate — at least not yet.
The leading choice is Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Tim Kaine, a popular former governor of Virginia.
Kaine has said both privately and publicly that he’s not interested in running for the Senate, but party leaders will launch a heavy lobbying effort to get him into the race.
The complication for Democrats is that it will take a lot of convincing to get Kaine to run. One strategist suggested that even a personal appeal from President Obama might not be enough, though Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) suggested Wednesday that the president try.
“I think that might be a conversation that has to happen between the president and the chairman of the DNC,” said Connolly, who wouldn’t rule out running for the seat himself.
“There’s no doubt you’re going to see a full-court press [to get Kaine in the race],” said Democratic strategist and former Webb adviser Steve Jarding. “He has national donor connections, he’s formed great relationships at the DNC, so he’s at the top of the list for sure.”
Kaine praised Webb’s service in a statement Wednesday but made no mention of his 2012 intentions. He simply expressed confidence Democrats will keep the seat.
“With the investments that President Obama and the Democratic Party will make in Virginia in 2012, I am confident that our party will hold on to this Senate seat,” he said.
Republicans, meanwhile, made it clear which Democrat they want to run.
“We can only hope that Democrats succeed in recruiting President Obama’s No. 1 cheerleader in Washington — Tim Kaine,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh said in a statement.
Republican prospects have improved in Virginia since Obama won the state in the 2008 presidential race. Republican Bob McDonnell was elected governor in 2009, despite Obama campaigning for the Democratic candidate, and Democrats lost three House seats in the 2010 midterm election.
As for the other possible Democratic candidates, Connolly said he’s just “absorbing” the news of Webb’s exit.
Connolly and Rep. Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) both said Wednesday that Webb’s decision is “disappointing,” but expressed confidence the senator has provided Democrats with enough time to find a strong replacement.
“We were hoping he was running,” said Scott, who also didn’t completely rule out a run next year, though he made it sound unlikely.
“Everybody is going to consider it, but I’m happy where I am,” he said, adding that Webb made his decision “in time for people to plan to get in the race. He hasn’t left anybody hanging.”
Among the other Democratic names being mentioned are former Reps. Tom Perriello, Rick Boucher and Glenn Nye.
Democrats say that despite his public pronouncements, former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe could take a second look at the race, too.
A spokesperson for Perriello told The Hill the former representative is keeping his 2012 options open. Perriello lost a very close House race in 2010.
Any member of the congressional delegation would have an uphill fight on his hands, but a candidate like Perriello, who’s known as a dogged campaigner, or Boucher, who has a base of support in southwestern Virginia, would certainly be viable.
Webb made his decision official in a statement Wednesday, the day he turned 65.
He said that “after much thought and consideration, I have decided to return to the private sector, where I have spent most of my professional life, and will not seek reelection in 2012.”
In his statement, Webb pushed back against the notion that his decision had anything to do with his reelection prospects, noting his late entry into the race in 2006 and disadvantage on the fundraising front.
Webb, a graduate of the Naval Academy and former secretary of the Navy, is serving his first term. During his time in the Senate, he focused on veterans’ affairs and foreign relations. He sits on the Armed Services, Foreign Affairs and Veterans’ Affairs committees, and was mentioned as a possible running mate for Obama.
Allen, who lost to Webb by less than 1 percent in 2006, praised his service.
“I respect Sen. Webb’s service to our country and the very personal decision that he and his family have made,” Allen said in a statement Wednesday. “I did not enter this race to run against any one person, but to fight for the families of Virginia to improve their opportunities in life.”
Allen still faces a potentially competitive Republican primary, with Democrats hoping a Tea Party challenge could prevent Allen from building a sizable fundraising and organizing advantage while Democrats search for a candidate.
Despite the Democratic scramble to find a replacement for Webb, the party remains publicly confident it will field a strong challenger and thinks Allen’s early strength is exaggerated.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said Democrats will find a “strong candidate” for Webb’s seat.
“As Republicans face a brutal primary between a flawed Washington establishment candidate and a right-wing extremist who is raising money at a good clip, Democrats will field a strong candidate. The 2012 Virginia Senate race will be competitive, but Democrats will prevail there, just like we did in 2006 and 2008,” she said in a statement.
— This post was originally posted at 11:40 a.m. and last updated at 8:10 p.m.