Republican campaign committee names top 2012 Senate targets

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) has its eye on five key races it hopes will pave the way for the GOP to take the majority in the upper chamber in 2012.

NRSC Executive Director Ron Jesmer said in an interview with CNN.com published Wednesday that the committee believes there is "fertile ground" for Republican gains in Montana, Virginia, Nebraska, Florida and North Dakota.

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Jesmer said that centrist Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson (D) is in "serious trouble and kind of in a league of his own," and that Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) also "is in a lot of trouble."

"There are other states where depending on if one candidate runs, there could be some other good challenges," he added. 

The official's comments provide an early preview of the GOP's strategy heading into the 2012 Senate campaign, when the party is expected to make further gains on Democrats, potentially taking the majority. 

2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain won Montana, Nebraska and North Dakota. Florida and Virginia flipped from red to blue two years ago, but some see the states tilting back to the GOP after the party picked up a number of House seats in each state.  

Republicans appear eager to challenge Democratic Sen. Jim Webb in Virginia; a Tea Party candidate has already filed papers to run in the primary.

But Jesmer conceded that unseating any incumbent could be difficult.

"I don't think anything is going to be easy," he warned.

Republicans in 2010 gained six seats in the Senate but were unable to capture the nine needed to take the majority. But the electoral math is difficult for Democrats in 2012: The party has to defend 21 seats, in addition to those of two Independents who caucus with them, compared to only 10 for the GOP.

Senate races in Missouri and Pennsylvania could also provide pickup opportunities for Republicans, who now need to net four seats to take control.

Democrats counter that Republicans could have their own internal problems in two years with Tea Party candidates who decide to challenge incumbents or establishment nominees, arguing that the same problem cost them 2010 victories in states like Colorado, Delaware and Nevada.

Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch (Utah), Dick Lugar (Ind.), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Scott Brown (Mass.) are among those up for reelection in 2012 who could face a primary challenge from the right.

"Generally speaking, we live in a new world and [NRSC Chairman John] Cornyn's [R-Texas] been very clear on this: People need to be prepared for a primary challenge," Jesmer said, adding that vulnerable candidates are aware of the environment they face.