With several Republicans interested, the party’s first priority might be avoiding a nasty primary battle.
Virginia Sen. Jim Webb (D) joined with much of his party's Senate caucus Tuesday in voting against an amendment to food-safety legislation that would have enacted a two-year ban on so-called earmarks.
His vote prompted a swift response from the Republican Party of Virginia, which hints at how contentious the first-term Democrat's reelection bid might be should he decide to run again in 2012.
"Virginia voters went to the polls and threw out three incumbent Democrats who had toed Nancy Pelosi's big spending party line," the RPV said in a statement.
"Yet Jim Webb voted to keep the earmarks rolling, joining with most other Democrats in opposing a ban on the practice. Maybe Jim Webb is listening to voters, but he just doesn't care."
Eight Republican senators voted against the amendment.
A spokesman for Webb said he believes that appropriating federal funds is a senator's "constitutional responsibility" and that earmarks, "when properly and transparently pursued, fall within this constitutional mandate."
"Current proposals to ban such appropriations projects would simply leave spending decisions to unelected officials in the executive branch," Will Jenkins, a spokesman for Webb, said in a statement. "Accordingly, unless there is a rule change or all members agree to refrain from earmarks, Senator Webb will continue to pursue funding for projects important to Virginia and the nation."
--Jordan Fabian contributed to this post
--Updated at 4:43 p.m.
Republican Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), who is already in the sights of Tea Party activists, is the only Senate Republican up for reelection in 2012 to vote against a proposed earmark ban in the Senate Tuesday.
Of the 10 GOP senators whose seats are up two years from now, Lugar is one of several who appears likely to get Tea Party-backed primary challengers. Along with Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Lugar stands near the top of the list of centrist GOP primary targets in 2012, but has shown no willingness to shift his positions in an attempt to cater to his party's conservative base.
Lugar has criticized Senate Republicans for not quickly moving forward on the New START treaty, and earlier this month he declined to sign onto a legal brief challenging the healthcare law.
The nine other GOP senators up in 2012 all voted in favor of the earmark ban, which fell short of the two-thirds majority it needed for passage Tuesday. The other nine Republicans who voted for it are Sens. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Snowe, Brown, Roger Wicker (Miss.), John Ensign (Nev.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Orrin Hatch (Utah), Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) and John Barrasso (Wy.).
Another seven Republicans voted against the ban, but none of them face voters in 2012.
For many Republican candidates this past cycle, earmarks proved a major issue on the campaign trail — a symbol of runaway government spending and Washington excess. It's an issue expected to carry over into 2012.
Staring down tough reelection races in 2012, Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.) were two of just seven Senate Democrats who voted in favor of the earmark ban Tuesday.
McCaskill, along with Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), was one of the Democratic co-sponsors of the measure, trumpeted by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
The four other Democrats who voted for the measure were Sens. Evan Bayh (Ind.), Russ Feingold (Wis.), Michael Bennet (Colo.) and Mark Warner (Va.).
Bayh is retiring and Feingold lost to Republican Ron Johnson earlier this month, but both could be candidates in 2012. It's rumored Bayh could make a run for governor and Feingold could try for a return to the Senate, should Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) decide to retire in two years.
Bennet, who just defeated Republican Ken Buck this fall, isn't up until 2016, while Warner's seat is up in 2014.
Murray, a previous DSCC chairwoman, will lead the committee in what's expected to be a tough year for Senate Democrats.
A state judge in Alaska on Monday denied the location-change request in Republican Joe Miller's lawsuit challenging the results of Alaska's Senate election, citing concerns over ballot security.
That the case will be heard in Juneau rather than Fairbanks, where Miller wanted the trial, is a minor victory for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), whose lawyers argued against shifting the venue.
An initial hearing in the case is set for Wednesday.
Murkowski was declared the winner over Miller earlier this month after some two weeks of counting write-in ballots in the race. The incumbent leads Miller by more than 10,000 votes — a margin greater than the number of ballots Miller is contesting in court — but the Tea Party favorite has refused to concede.
In deciding the case would be heard in Juneau, Judge Douglas Blankenship said moving the ballots could "further risk the integrity of the election."
Miller is challenging more than 8,000 write-in ballots that his lawsuit argues do not meet the standard required under Alaska law to be counted for Murkowski. Miller claims state elections officials applied an arbitrary voter intent standard to count votes that either misspelled Murkowski's name or contained some other irregularity.
After questioning the state's counting and security procedures throughout the process earlier this month, the Miller camp seized on the concern over ballot security in a statement Monday.
"We all paused when the state Attorney General admitted to having security concerns about the ballots. We simply assumed the same security measures used to transport the ballots from Fairbanks (and from throughout the state of Alaska) to Juneau after they were cast would be used to transfer ballots from Juneau to Fairbanks, if that were necessary," Miller said in a statement. "But there was a noticeable quiet in the courtroom when the state’s attorney questioned their own ability to secure these ballots. We don’t know what to make of this at the moment."
Murkowski wants to intervene in the case, but Blankenship did not decide Monday whether or not she could. The senator has warned that Miller's lawsuit could leave the state without full representation in Congress come January. If she is not sworn in Jan. 3, Murkowski said she stands to lose her seniority.
Certification of the election results was originally set to take place Monday, but Miller was successful in convincing a federal judge to issue a temporary injunction preventing state elections officials from certifying the results.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison angered conservatives with her gubernatorial bid, and many are vowing to make her pay in 2012.
Virginia Republican Corey Stewart, the chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, said Monday he's "seriously considering" a run for Senate in 2012, which would likely pit him against former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) in a primary.
In an interview Monday on NewsChannel 8, Stewart said he was certain Allen will enter the 2012 race, and admitted that the former senator is the clear frontrunner.
But in an early signal that Stewart may be ready to wage a primary challenge to Allen, he labeled Allen's single term in the Senate as "mediocre" and warned that the former senator shouldn't count on the Republican base to fall in line behind him in two years.
"Sen. Allen was a great governor. He really was," said Stewart. "But his record in the Senate was mediocre. And I don't think that most people in Virginia think of him as a good senator. They think of him as a great governor."
Stewart, who said he plans to make a decision on whether or not to jump in the race within a year, said Allen could find that a lot of his base has "moved on" since his last run in 2006.
"He's going to have a tough time," Stewart concluded.
Earlier this month, the state GOP opted for a primary over a party convention to choose their Senate nominee in 2012 — a move that was widely seen as a tacit endorsement of Allen. The former senator's high name recognition and strong fundraising ability make him the prohibitive favorite in a primary.
A convention process, which the party used in both 2008 and 2009, would offer a lesser-known or more staunchly conservative candidate greater ability to make a run at Allen by piecing together enough support among party insiders to capture the nomination.
Stewart's warning echoes what former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said last week — a primary helps Allen initially, but it's no slam dunk.
"There are a lot of variables to this thing," said Davis, who decided to forgo a Senate bid in 2008 after party insiders decided against holding a primary. Former Gov. Jim Gilmore (R-Va.) became the nominee and lost badly to Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).
"Initially, it definitely helps Allen," Davis said, noting that it immediately discourages some long-shot candidates from even waging a bid. "But a year is an eternity in politics and this thing hasn't even started to develop yet."
The speculation about George Allen’s comeback has put the pressure on Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who some Democrats think is ambivalent.
Lawyers for Murkowski argued that not certifying the election results will leave the state without full representation.
Former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who was at the center of his own drawn out legal battle over a Senate seat in 2008, thinks Republican Joe Miller should hang it up and officially concede to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
In an interview that will air on C-SPAN Sunday, Coleman said, "I think that race is over."
The former senator said he understands Miller's frustration, noting that he had some of the same concerns over the standard by which elections officials in Minnesota were counting ballots in 2008. But he called his contest with Al Franken "a much, much closer race."
"I made a decision at a certain point in time to not go any further. I think at a certain point in time you have to have some finality to these things," Coleman said. "Without criticizing Joe Miller, I would offer him advice, the same advice that Fred Thompson and others have offered recently. I think it should be time to move on, that there's not much you can gain by extending the process."
Former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) was more blunt on his radio show last week, saying Miller should "give it up" and "show a little class."
Murkowski was declared the winner last week, but a federal judge has issued a temporary injunction barring state elections officials from certifying the election results while Miller's lawsuit works is in state court.
Miller claims the state applied a faulty and arbitrary "voter intent" standard to the counting of write-in ballots and wants more than 8,000 ballots challenged by his campaign thrown out due to improper spelling of Murkowski's name or other irregularities.
Either way, the math isn't in Miller's favor. Murkowski leads by more than 10,000 votes, which is greater than the number of ballots challenged by Miller's camp.