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Posted at 12:07 PM ET, 01/21/2011

Senate Republicans' primary challenge

By Chris Cillizza

While the 2012 Republican presidential race has been among the slowest starting in modern memory, the activity in Senate contests is more than filling the void for political junkies.

Already we have three open seats -- Connecticut, North Dakota and Texas -- and feisty primaries shaping up in Utah, Indiana, Missouri, Florida and Virginia to name just a few.

Friday Line

Most of the candidate action is on the Republican side at the moment for two main reasons:

1. The 2010 election was the best across-the-board result for Republicans since the 1994 tidal wave. Seeing success like that bolsters ambitious GOPers who slogged through the terrible cycles of 2006 and 2008 waiting for just such an opportunity.

2. There are more than twice as many Democratic-held seats up in 2010 as Republican ones. That means that Democrats will, largely, be playing defense in 2012 as national GOPers -- and their candidates -- try to take advantage of what, by the numbers alone, should be a very good election for them.

Too much of a good thing isn't necessarily wonderful for Republicans, however. While enthusiasm is never a bad thing in politics, a panoply of primaries can also negatively impact a party's chances of maximizing their general election gains. (See Angle, Sharron and O'Donnell, Christine.)

Senate Democrats are doing everything they can to play up Republicans' potential primary problems -- a smart strategy given that they have so few offensive opportunities (Nevada and Massachusetts) of their own at the moment.

In order for Republicans to take back the Senate in 2012, they will need to find ways to avoid the scenario that repeatedly played out in 2010 when less electable candidates were picked in primaries.

That's a delicate dance, however, given the power of the tea party and its resistance to being told what to do by the GOP establishment.

Can National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) thread the needle?

Our Line of the 10 races most likely to flip party control in 2012 are below. The number one ranked race is considered the most likely to turn over. Agree with our picks? Disagree? The comments section is ready and waiting for your thoughts.

To the Line!

Coming off the Line: West Virginia
Coming onto the Line: North Dakota

10. Montana (Democratic-controlled): Sen. Jon Tester won election five years ago by one of the narrowest margins in the country, aided by a Democratic wave and an embattled GOP incumbent. This time, Tester again has his work cut out for him. His approval rating isn't in the danger zone yet but businessman Steve Daines (R), who has raised a solid $225,000 since entering the race in November. (Tester had about half a million dollars on hand as of his most recent fundraising report.) Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) still hasn't indicated whether he'll jump in the race, but for the time being, Daines looks to be a formidable opponent. (Previous ranking: 10)

9. Michigan (D): Polling suggests Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) is vulnerable, but we're not sure who is going to run against her. Former state Attorney General Mike Cox (R) has already said no, and most of the attention seems to be devoted to former Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R), who, like Cox, lost in the gubernatorial primary last year. Michigan is tough for any incumbent given the state of the state's economy, but in order to beat an established candidate like Stabenow in a presidential year, Republicans will need a strong candidate of their own. (Previous ranking: 8)

8. Ohio (D): Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) got some good news this week, as a new Quinnipiac poll showed him with a 45 percent approval rating, compared to just 25 percent disapproval. In addition, he leads a generic Republican by double digits. It's not yet clear which Republican is going to step forward. An early favorite was Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), but he has suggested he's unlikely to make the leap. Other options include Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor and state Treasurer Josh Mandel. (Previous ranking: 5)

7. Florida (D): Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) made clear this week that he will be running for reelection. That race will almost certainly be the toughest of Nelson's career. State Senate President Mike Haridopolos is in the race on the GOP side, but he could have plenty of company. Sen. George LeMieux, Rep. Connie Mack and state Rep. Adam Hasner are all giving the race a hard look. (Previous ranking: 7)

6. Nevada (Republican-controlled): As we noted earlier this month, Sen. John Ensign has it much tougher than Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) had it last cycle; even though both men have been involved in extramarital affairs, Ensign's situation is complicated by a number of issues including the fact that he remains under investigation by the Senate ethics committee and that his affair was with his best friend's wife. But the worse things look for Ensign, the better they look for Republicans on Election Day; polling already shows Ensign trailing in a primary match-up against Rep. Dean Heller (R), whose decision on whether to run will likely be influenced by how vulnerable Ensign becomes. If Heller is the Republican nominee, Democrats' chances of picking up this seat are reduced. (Previous ranking: 2)

5. Massachusetts (R): Vicki Kennedy, the widow of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D), made very clear in a recent interview with the Boston Globe that she has no interest in challenging Sen. Scott Brown (R) in 2012. Without Kennedy running, the Democratic race is likely to be a free-for-all as ambitious pols who took a pass on the special election race in 2009 will jump into the race. The more crowded the field, the better for Brown who can focus on raising money and staying above the fray. Plus, Brown's poll numbers are very strong. It won't be an easy race -- particularly in a presidential year -- but the Republican is as well positioned as he could possibly be at the moment. (Previous ranking: 4)

4. Missouri (D): It's a testament to Sen. Claire McCaskill's (D) precarious reelection prospects that Republicans are falling all over one another to consider the race. Former state treasurer Sarah Steelman is already in while Rep. Sam Graves, former Sen. Jim Talent and former Ambassador Ann Wagner are all weighing bids. McCaskill is no pushover -- not by a long shot -- but she has been a close ally of President Obama since coming into office in 2006 and represents a state that moved heavily away from Democrats in 2010. (Previous ranking: 5)

3. Virginia (D): The big news this week was that Democrats lost their backup plan. Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) is wavering on whether he wants to seek reelection, and if he doesn't, Democrats were expected to turn to Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine -- a former governor of Virginia. No dice, Kaine said this week. Democrats' saving grace could be what looks like a pitched GOP primary ahead. Former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) appears set to enter the race soon. (Previous ranking: 3)

2. North Dakota (D): For the second straight cycle, a longtime Democratic senator from North Dakota -- this time Sen. Kent Conrad -- is calling it quits. The good news for the party is that uber-popular John Hoeven (R) is already in the Senate and can't run again. Republicans start out favored, but they don't have a Hoeven-like figure waiting in the wings. That said, Democrats have their work cut out for them in a state President Obama will almost certainly lose in 2012. (Previous ranking: N/A)

1. Nebraska (D): Republicans are supremely confident they will hold this seat after the 2012 election -- whether Sen. Ben Nelson (D) retires or runs again. Nebraska's overwhelming Republican nature makes it a stiff hill to climb for Nelson and Republicans are already lining up for the chance to knock him off. If Nelson retires, the seat is gone since Democrats have a very weak bench in the Cornhusker State. If he runs again, there is a chance at victory for Democrats -- but not much of one. (Previous ranking: 1)

With Aaron Blake and Felicia Sonmez

By Chris Cillizza  | January 21, 2011; 12:07 PM ET
Categories:  The Line  
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