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Posted at 12:18 PM ET, 02/ 9/2011

Jim Webb's retirement (and what it means)

By Chris Cillizza

Virginia Sen. Jim Webb will not seek a second term in 2012. Photo by Melina Mara/Washington Post

Updated, 1:37 p.m.

Virginia Sen. Jim Webb's decision not to seek re-election creates an open seat in traditionally Republican territory that could further tilt the map in the GOP's favor as they aim to win back the Senate in 2012.

Webb's announcement, which came this morning in the form of a statement from his office, was not terribly surprising to Democratic observers who had long believed that the Senator was a toss up -- at best -- to run for a second term.

"This seat is going to flip," predicted one veteran Democratic operative familiar with the Commonwealth's politics. "The bench is so shallow."

Webb is the third Democratic (or Democratic-affiliated) Senator to call it quits already this year, joining Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.) on the sidelines. Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is the lone Republican to announce she will not seek re-election in 2012.

While holding the Connecticut seat should pose limited problems -- if any -- for Democrats, both Virginia and North Dakota have deep Republican roots and will be major targets for Republicans in 2012.

The open seats in Virginia and North Dakota -- when coupled with the fact that there are 23 Democratic seats up this cycle as compared to just 10 for Republicans -- paint a stark portrait of the challenge before Democrats to hold their majority next November.

For Democrats hoping to hold that majority, Virginia is likely to emerge as a linchpin.

President Obama carried the state in 2008 -- although he was the first Democrat to win the Commonwealth at the presidential level since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 -- and both Mark Warner and Tim Kaine served as governor in a period spanning from 2001 to 2009. Warner cruised to a victory in the 2008 race to replace retiring Sen. John Warner (R) as well.

But, the state has moved back toward Republicans over the last few years -- electing Gov. Bob McDonnell in a landslide in 2009 and tossing out three Democratic House incumbents -- and quite nearly a fourth -- in 2010.

It is Kaine who may hold the key to Democrats' hopes of holding the state. Kaine, who is currently chairman of the Democratic National Committee, left office in 2009 still quite popular with voters and would almost certainly be the best candidate the party could nominate.

The problem for Democrats is that Kaine has expressed little interest in the race to date. In the immediate aftermath of Webb's announcement, one Democratic source suggested that Kaine's disinterest was out of respect to the incumbent.

Kaine is not expected to say anything on his interest (or lack thereof) today. Several informed Democratic sources suggested, however, that Kaine would likely only run if President Obama himself asked him to do so. It's not clear whether Obama would do that although he and Kaine do have a long and close relationship. (Kaine was the first major elected official to support Obama's presidential bid.)

If Kaine sticks to his "no", then Democrats will likely turn to former Rep. Tom Perriello who held the Southside 5th district for a single term before losing it last fall. Despite his brief tenure in the House, Perriello emerged as a favorite of the White House thanks to his willingness to vote for things like health care and the economic stimulus package despite the swing nature of his district. (That closeness to the White House, of course, would likely be exploited by Republicans in a general election.)

Others mentioned include Rep. Gerry Connolly, who represents the northern Virginia 11th district, former Rep. Rick Boucher who lost a bid for a 15th term last fall, 2009 lieutenant governor nominee Jody Wagner and state Sen. Chap Petersen.

The Republican field is slightly more clear. Former Sen. George Allen is already running and is the frontrunner although a number of conservatives trying to align themselves with the tea party -- most notably Jamie Radtke -- are in the mix as well. It's not immediately obvious whether Webb's retirement will expand the number of GOP candidates willing to run.

One thing working in Allen's favor is that the state Republican party chose to pick their nominee in 2012 via a primary rather than a convention, meaning that the electorate is likely to be larger and slightly less conservative, both of which should play to his strengths.

"I did not enter into this race to run against any one person, but to fight for the families of Virginia to improve their opportunities in life," Allen said in a statement released Wednesday afternoon.

Still, 2010 proved the tea party's power in Senate Republican primaries and Democrats are sure to play up that storyline to the hilt in the coming months in Virginia.

"As Republicans face a brutal primary between a flawed Washington establishment candidate and a right-wing extremist who is raising money at a good clip, Democrats will field a strong candidate," promised Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (Wash.). "The 2012 Virginia Senate race will be competitive but Democrats will prevail there just like we did in 2006 and 2008."

Given Democrats' near-certain difficulties in holding the North Dakota open seat and its incumbents representing Republican-leaning states like Nebraska, Missouri and Montana, the party has to hope Murray is right.

By Chris Cillizza  | February 9, 2011; 12:18 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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