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Posted at 4:13 PM ET, 03/ 9/2011

Examining Herb Kohl's indecisiveness on 2012

By Rachel Weiner

Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.)

Questioned Tuesday on his 2012 re-election plans, Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl didn't exactly give a straight answer.

He asked rhetorically, "Am I running?" and shrugged. Kohl then asked, "Are you are a reporter?" Told "yes," he walked away.

Kohl sought to bring some level of clarity to the proceedings today, saying in a statement: "I believe that the people of Wisconsin prefer that I work rather than campaign, but rest assured that when it's time to make my plans for 2012, I will share them."

That statement is, of course, far less than a definitive pledge to run again and ensures political tea-leaf-reading about Kohl's plans will continue.

Back in January, Kohl's decision to loan his campaign $1 million was widely seen as a sign that he was going to run.

But the wealthy senator -- he is an heir to the Kohl's department store fortune -- could just as easily take that money back if he decides not to run. He'll be 77 next year and, at the start of the cycle, was prominently featured on both parties' retirement watch lists. He's also declined to take a visible role in the protests galvanizing liberals against Gov. Scott Walker's (R) budget plan.

"The state is obviously going through a period of turmoil where the U.S. Senate race is the last thing on anyone's mind," said Paul Maslin, who has served as Kohl's pollster and is based in Wisconsin. Maslin added that the incumbent "has the luxury of some time before absolutely committing one way or the other."

What would a race look like if Kohl did step aside? Republicans scored across-the-board victories in 2010 in Wisconsin -- beating Sen. Russ Feingold (D), winning the open governor's seat and taking back two U.S. House seats -- and almost certainly would make a major push in the Badger State.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R) has been discussed as a potential Senate candidate almost since he came to Congress from the swing 1st district in 1998. But, Ryan now sits on a plum post as chairman of the House Budget Committee, making it something short of a slam dunk for him to run statewide in an open-seat scenario.

Former Rep. Mark Neumann (R), who came within a hair's breadth of beating Feingold in 1998 but ran a more quixotic primary campaign against Walker last year, would almost certainly take a serious look as well.

And there would almost certainly be some chatter about freshman Rep. Sean Duffy, a rising star within the national GOP, stepping up to the Senate race as well.

On the Democratic side, Feingold would be the obvious choice. When he was defeated last fall, Feingold declared: "It's on to the next fight. ... It's on to 2012."

That statement left many political observers puzzled and speculation immediately began about the idea of Feingold challenging President Obama from the ideological left. But, Feingold -- via a spokesman -- rejected the idea out of hand.

Eric Ostermeier, a research associate at the University of Minnesota and author of the blog Smart Politics, suggests that Kohl could be delaying a retirement announcement so that Republicans are slower to get in the race, giving Feingold an easier path back into office.

It's not clear though that Feingold would have the primary field to himself. Rep. Ron Kind, for example, has long been talked about as a statewide candidate and might find it hard to resist an open seat race.

But Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster who has worked extensively in Wisconsin politics, suggested that the wild speculation about Kohl's future is much ado about not much.

"He's different from everyone else and he's on his own timetable," Yang said, adding that Kohl's hard-to-read responses are "all just sound and fury, signifying nothing."

By Rachel Weiner  | March 9, 2011; 4:13 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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