Preventing 60: Hope for Republicans may be two elections away

The Republican Party will fight like hell to keep the Democrats from getting to 60 seats in 2010. But if it doesn’t, it’ll have a good shot at bringing them back down in 2012.

After two straight elections of big losses, 2012 will give Senate Republicans a map full of opportunities, with 24 Democratic seats on the line and many of them in red or swing states.

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The Democrats up include five members who will be 77 years of age or older, five who represent states that went for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) last year and 10 completing their first full term in the chamber.

Republicans are looking forward to 2012 — and not just because they’ll have a chance to win back the White House.

“In 2012, their goal is to get Democrats back under 60,” said Jennifer Duffy of The Cook Political Report. “With 24 seats, the mathematical odds are pretty good.”

On the flip side, a lopsided six-year cycle that had half of Republican seats up in 2008 and 19 more in 2010 will leave just nine to be defended in 2012.

About the only feasible GOP targets available are Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and John Ensign (R-Nev.) and possibly the seat left by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who is likely running for governor.

The map is left that way because of a disastrous 2006 cycle in which the Iraq war, GOP scandals and other factors conspired to send six GOP incumbents to defeat. Democrats took at least seven seats in 2008, but the field of opportunities was much larger.

Brian Nick, a Republican consultant who was at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) when the bad streak began, said the staff there was itching for a do-over with that set of races.

“When you’re in that kind of atmosphere, you absolutely want to have the election the next day,” Nick said. “I think a lot of people agree that 2012, for a variety of reasons, is going to be much better than we had in 2006.

“If you’re just looking at the Senate races, there’s ripe picking.”

The crop includes freshman Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), all of whom could be top targets.

Democrats also might have to deal with open seats left by Sens. Robert Byrd (W.Va.), who would be 95; Daniel Akaka (Hawaii), who would be 88; Edward Kennedy (Mass.), who would be 80; Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), who would be 79; and Herb Kohl (Wis.), who would be 77.

{mospagebreak}Byrd and Kennedy have both encountered health problems of late, and Kennedy’s brain cancer has already spurred talk about what happens in his absence. Massachusetts would prove difficult for the GOP, with ambitious Democrats having prepped for the vacancy for years, but West Virginia would surely be a top target, having gone for McCain by double digits.

Akaka surprised some by running in 2006, and he turned away a fierce primary from then-Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii), 54-45. Case is back in the public eye, running for the state’s other House seat in 2010, and he and outgoing GOP Gov. Linda Lingle could pose significant threats.

Feinstein could also run for governor in 2010, leaving an open seat.

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Another seat held by a potential senator-turned-governor — Hutchison’s — is one of the few potential takeovers Democrats will have.

Sources said the party is definitely looking to go after Ensign and Kyl, a pair of missed opportunities from 2006. Both won by double digits, but thanks to demographic shifts will be representing very different states in three years.

Hutchison hasn’t made it clear when she would resign her Senate seat. She is up for reelection in 2012, but has suggested she would leave the chamber early to focus on a 2010 run for governor. The Democrats’ proximity to 60 seats has made that more difficult, though.

Republicans could have retirements in Indiana (Richard Lugar) or Utah (Orrin Hatch), but both men have remained active senators and Lugar already has a 2012 campaign website up.

The right-tilting map aside, two large factors remain to be determined: the presidential race and redistricting.

Unlike 2006, Republicans will have a national race to assist them at the top of the ballot in states like Missouri, Montana and West Virginia. Ohio and Pennsylvania both went for President Obama in 2008 but could go red if Obama and the Democrats struggle.

The presidential race should also help Republican Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Roger Wicker (Miss.), who won their seats in difficult open-seat races but represent red states.

Duffy also noted that several Senate races could be shaped by redistricting.

“Redistricting in states that gain and lose seats tends to have an impact on Senate races — especially if somebody gets pushed out,” said Duffy, who called the decision for some members “up or out.”

A good example is Minnesota, where the legislature is controlled by Democrats and the state is expected to lose a House seat. If Democrats win the governorship and control the process, a Republican could get squeezed out of its congressional delegation and look to take on Klobuchar.

Similar situations could occur in Missouri, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which are also expected to lose seats and have Democratic senators up in 2012.