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2012 Senate landscape looks good for Republicans

The best thing about politics -- at least if you love it as deeply and totally as we do -- is that as soon as one campaign ends, the next one begins.

Witness the announcement this morning by Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning (R) that he was forming an exploratory committee to look at a run against Sen. Ben Nelson (D) in 2012.

Make no mistake: the 2012 cycle is already very much underway with incumbents debating whether or not to run for reelection and ambitious challengers putting the pieces in place to mount bids.

Friday Line

At first glance, the 2012 election looks likely to be a very good one for Republicans. Democrats must defend 23 seats while there are just 10 GOP seats up for grabs.

And, it's not just raw numbers that make the cycle daunting for Democrats -- it's where the races are taking place. In addition to Nelson, who represents a state where President Obama won just 42 percent in 2008, Democrats will have to defend seats in Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia, Florida, North Dakota, Montana and Virginia -- not exactly the friendliest of states for their side at the moment.

Republicans have problem spots of their own -- most notably in Nevada and Massachusetts -- but they are fewer and further between than Democrats.

Our first take on the 10 Senate seats most likely two switch sides in 2012 is below. You'll notice Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) isn't on the Line; while it's hard to see Lieberman winning reelection, it's equally difficult to see a Republican winning the race -- meaning that there will be no party change after 2012. (Lieberman does, after all, caucus with Democrats.)

Who did we miss? Offer your own thoughts in the comments section below.

To the Line!

10. West Virginia (Democratic-controlled): There's no honeymoon for Sen.-elect Joe Manchin (D), who after winning on Tuesday to fill the last two years of Sen. Robert C. Byrd's (D) term, faces a race for a full six-year term in 2012. After seeing how close businessman John Raese (R) came to beating Manchin, will Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R), who passed on the special election race, decide to challenge Manchin this time? If Capito passes, this race likely falls off the Line as the popular Manchin isn't an easy target.

9. North Dakota (D): Republicans had two big victories here on Tuesday. One of them was expected -- Gov. John Hoeven (R) won election to succeed retiring Sen. Byron Dorgan (D). The other was not as Republican Rick Berg unseated longtime Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy. Those results have to make Sen. Kent Conrad (D), who hasn't been seriously challenged since winning the seat in 1986, very nervous.

8. Florida (D): Republicans claimed the governorship, a Senate seat and netted four House seats in the Sunshine State on Tuesday. That's sure to embolden Republicans to make a serious run at Sen. Bill Nelson (D) who skated by in 2000 when then Rep. Katherine Harris won the Republican nod. Appointed Sen. George Lemieux, who will leave office early next year year, is clearly interested in returning to the Senate. But, can he avoid a divisive primary?

7. Ohio (D): Sen. Sherrod Brown , one of five Democrats ranked as the Senate's most liberal by National Journal last year, rode into office on the Democratic wave of 2006, ousting moderate Republican Sen. Mike DeWine. This time around, it looks like Brown will be fighting for his political life; Ohio Democrats on Tuesday not only lost the governorship and the state's other Senate seat, but also saw five House seats flip to the GOP.

6. Missouri (D): Missouri is a swing state, but it proved very inhospitable for Democrats this year. President Obama's numbers are remarkably bad -- 33 percent approval and 62 percent disapproval in a recent Missouri State University poll. Combine that with Secretary of State Robin Carnahan's (D) not-so-great showing in their year's open Senate race, and it's easy to see that Sen. Claire McCaskill will be a target. McCaskill, whose close ties to President Obama will be a major issue in the race, could face a rematch with former Sen. Jim Talent (R).

5. Virginia (D): Sen. Jim Webb (D) isn't saying whether he'll run for reelection, but he isn't raising much money, which could be read as a sign he's not. (Webb is very unorthodox as a politician, however, so his lack of cash might not mean anything.) Whether Webb runs or not, this seat will be a GOP target. Former Sen. George Allen (R), who lost to Webb in 2006, is planning a run. Polling shows the race would be close but there is already some speculation that Allen might not have a clear path if he does run. Keep an eye on whether Virginia Republicans choose a primary or convention to determine their nominee; the latter is preferable for Allen.

4. Montana (D): Sen. Jon Tester (D) won election in 2006 by just 3,562 votes over then-Sen. Conrad Burns (R) in a race that was touted by national Democrats as a sign that the Mountain West was shifting their way. But, Republicans view Tester as a vulnerable first-term Democrat in conservative-tilting territory, and Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) is a potential challenger.

3. Nevada (Republican controlled): Sen. John Ensign (R) has said he will seek reelection, but that probably depends on whether he sees a path to victory after it was revealed last year that he had an affair with a staffer. Ensign is still dealing with a federal and Senate investigation into the matter. That should weigh heavily on his decision, but it is already weighing heavily on his campaign account (which dropped from $961,000 to $280,000 in the third quarter thanks to legal bills). Rep. Dean Heller (R) is waiting in the wings and almost certainly would primary Ensign if the incumbent decides to run. Rep. Shelly Berkley is mentioned on the Democratic side.

2. Massachusetts (R): Republicans viewed Sen. Scott Brown's upset win over state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) in a January 2010 special election as a sign of a GOP resurgence in the Bay State, but so far, that doesn't seem to be the case: Republicans challengers lost bids for the governorship and several House seats on Tuesday. Rep. Mike Capuano (D), who waged a spirited campaign against Coakley in the primary but ultimately came up short, has hinted that he's eyeing a run against Brown but he almost certainly won't have the field to himself.

1. Nebraska (D): No race is moving faster than this one with Bruning already all-but-in. Republicans are very excited about the party's chances of defeating Nelson in two years time. Nelson benefited from running for reelection in 2006 in a great Democratic year -- a luxury he almost certainly won't enjoy this time around.

By Chris Cillizza  | November 5, 2010; 12:32 PM ET
Categories:  The Line  
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