Senate retirements mostly good news for GOP in 2012 landscape

With three retirements in just the past two weeks, the 2012 Senate landscape is quickly starting to take shape, and so far it's mostly welcome news for Republicans aiming to take back the Senate majority next year.

The GOP needs to pick up just four seats in 2012 for control of the upper chamber and the party has a total of 23 targets to choose from, while only needing to defend 10 of its own seats.

The best news so far for the GOP -- the decision of Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who announced his retirement just one day before Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said he wouldn't seek reelection in 2012.

Conrad's retirement just about hands Republicans a Senate seat in North Dakota next year -- a state where the GOP scored two big wins in 2010 and Democrats don't have much of a bench to speak of.

"North Dakota was very good news for Senate Republicans," said Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who added that the committee fully expects more Democrats to bow out before 2012.

Last week, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) began the string of Senate retirements ahead of a cycle that could be littered with them. The question that looms when the Senate returns for business next week: Who's next?

A handful of other Democratic senators could also opt for retirement in 2012, decisions that, in most cases, would be a boon for GOP hopes of regaining the majority next year.

Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.) are two of the biggest names still outstanding. While Republicans are poised to contest both of those seats in 2012 regardless of whether the incumbents decide to run again, open seat races would likely favor the GOP in both states.

All indications are that former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) wants a rematch with Webb, setting up a hotly contested general election race. But should Webb decide not to run again, Virginia Democrats would be scrambling to find an alternative with the clear advantage shifting to the GOP.

In Wisconsin, an open seat would likely attract a stronger GOP field, potentially increasingly the likelihood of a campaign from someone like Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanGOP leaders pitch children's health funding in plan to avert shutdown Lawmakers see shutdown’s odds rising Fix what we’ve got and make Medicare right this year MORE (R-Wisc.).

Another potential question mark for Democrats is Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.). If he decides to bow out, it makes that seat more competitive, as well, with former Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) more likely to get in.

In Nebraska, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) sounds like he's running in 2012, but there's speculation the Democrat might eventually decide to retire rather than face a bruising battle. Nelson faces a backlash over his support of healthcare and already has a viable opponent in the conservative-leaning state.

Similarly, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) might contemplate retirement if a strong GOP challenge emerged. Former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle (R) is a rumored candidate and her entrance into the race could make Akaka rethink 2012, potentially setting up a more competitive open seat contest there.

Along with the potential for a handful of open seat races that could lean the GOP's way, Republicans already have a fairly sizable target list of incumbents in conservative-leaning states.

"Democratic senators in some of these states like Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterEMILY’s List president: Franken did 'right thing for Minnesota' Reforming veterans health care for all generations of veterans Trump and Republicans deliver gift that keeps on giving for Americans MORE (Mont.), Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillNSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Senate campaign fundraising reports roll in Dems search for winning playbook MORE (Mo.), and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinMcConnell to Dems: Don't hold government 'hostage' over DACA Lawmakers see shutdown’s odds rising Senate campaign fundraising reports roll in MORE (W.Va.) are all to the left of voters there," said Walsh.

This week's retirements weren't all bad news for Democrats. Lieberman's decision was less welcome news for the GOP and doesn't shift the overall Senate calculus in the party's direction.

Even though he caucuses with Democrats, a contested three-way race in 2012 with Lieberman running as an independent likely would have given the GOP its best shot at capturing the seat.

Now, two strong candidates have already jumped into the race to succeed Lieberman -- Rep. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyFlake's anti-Trump speech will make a lot of noise, but not much sense Senate campaign fundraising reports roll in Puerto Rico's children need recovery funds MORE (D-Conn.) and former Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz (D) -- leaving Democrats confident about their chances in a presidential year.

National Democrats rightly caution that the cycle has barely begun and that even in states like Texas and North Dakota, where the conventional wisdom suggests the GOP will be heavily favored, unpredictable primaries could significantly alter the playing field before the fall of 2012.

"Republican primaries cost them Senate seats last cycle and there's no question it will happen again," said Eric Schultz, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee."It's far too early for Republicans to declare any victories. Just ask Mike Castle."

Democrats are also bullish on their chances in Massachusetts, where Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) is up next year, and in Nevada, which is one state where it's safe to say the GOP wouldn't mind seeing a Republican retirement. For now, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) is forging ahead with a reelection bid, despite woeful poll numbers.

Rapid developments in Texas, Connecticut and North Dakota aside, it's still only January, meaning it's far too early to give either party a definitive edge.

The dominant narrative at this point last cycle: the likelihood that Democrats would widen their Senate majority thanks to highly-touted 2010 recruits like Robin Carnahan (Mo.) and Lee Fisher (Ohio).