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Posted at 3:19 PM ET, 02/18/2011

Why Tim Kaine matters

By Chris Cillizza

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine continues to mull the prospect of a bid for the seat being vacated by Sen. Jim Webb (D) in 2012, delaying any announcement until at least next week.

Friday Line

What Kaine decides has obvious implications for the party's hopes of holding the Virginia seat. Kaine, a former Virginia governor, is Democrats' strongest candidate and would make a race against former Sen. George Allen (R) instantly competitive. The Democrats who might run if Kaine doesn't simply don't carry that same stature.

But, Kaine's decision also has less obvious but no less important implications for Democrats nationally.


Because Democrats haven't had all that much good news this cycle. In addition to the daunting raw numbers -- 23 Democrats (or Democratic-aligned) senators are up for reelection in 2012 as compared to just 10 Republicans --the New Mexico seat is the latest in a string of potentially problematic open seat races that have emerged.

Landing Kaine -- a top-tier recruit who has wavered on the idea of running -- would be the sort of foundational building block that Senate Democrats could build around.

Recruiting in politics is a lot like recruiting in sports. Get one star and use that star as leverage -- he's doing it, so should you -- to bring in other stars. (Think the "Fab Five" or more recently John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe.)

Republicans did it in 2002 with John Thune, Norm Coleman and Jim Talent, and Democrats had a similar star-studded class in 2008 with Mark Warner, Mark Begich and Mark and Tom Udall.

Convincing Kaine to run then would be a victory not just for Democrats in Virginia but for Democrats nationally. Much rides on what he decides.

Our rankings of the 10 -- actually eleven -- Senate races most likely to switch parties is below. The number one race is considered the most likely switcher.

Agree? Disagree? The comments section is ready and waiting.

To the Line!

Coming off the Line: Michigan
Coming onto the Line: Arizona and New Mexico

10 (tie). Arizona (Republican-controlled): Sen. Jon Kyl's (R) retirement last week gives Democrats a chance -- albeit not a great one -- in Arizona. Rep. Jeff Flake is already in the race on the Republican side and is the frontrunner although his relatively moderate position on immigration could well draw a primary challenge. The Democratic field is largely unformed due in large part to questions surrounding whether Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived an attempted assassination last month, might be able to run. Others mentioned on the Democratic side include U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke and Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ruled herself out today. (Previous ranking: N/A)

10. (tie) New Mexico (Democratic-controlled): We reported earlier today that Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) would not seek reelection - big news that throws an otherwise-safe Democratic seat into play. Despite Gov. Susana Martinez's (R) win in the 2010 governor's race, Democrats have been ascendant in the Land of Enchantment in recent years, and the state went 57 percent for President Obama in 2008. Like Arizona, this one leans toward the incumbent's party, but we're still waiting for the field to form. (Previous ranking: N/A)

9. Ohio (Democratic-controlled): Republicans are salivating at the prospect of running against a tried-and-true liberal senator in a swing state. But no one has stepped up -- yet -- to take on Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). The current GOP candidate du jour is 33-year-old state Treasurer Josh Mandel, who just took office last month. Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, meanwhile, just took on a job as head of the Department of Insurance -- a move that suggests she's less likely to run. (Previous ranking: 8)

8. Nevada (R): Rep. Dean Heller (R) looks more and more like a candidate; this week he released a poll he released a poll showing him leading Sen. John Ensign (R) by 15 points. That's good news for the GOP. Republican leaders won't say it publicly, but they would feel a lot better with Heller as their nominee. Meanwhile, Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) says she won't be scared off by Heller but it's not yet clear whether the Congresswoman is the party's best nominee. (Previous ranking: 6)

7. Massachusetts (R): As we wrote this week, things are surprisingly quiet in Massachusetts Democratic circles, as Sen. Scott Brown (R) continues to do everything right to win. Democrats are still quite confident, however, that they will ultimately have a top tier candidate and insist that Brown's approval numbers may be high but that they are not terribly deep. (Previous ranking: 5)

6. Florida (D): A new Mason-Dixon poll finds Sen. Bill Nelson (D) can't crack 50 percent against any of his potential Republican challengers. Nelson got lucky in 2006 when Republicans nominated the unelectable Katherine Harris. Republicans won't make that mistake again. (Previous ranking: 7)

5. Montana (R): National Republicans scored an early recruiting coup when Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) announced he would take on freshman Sen. Jon Tester (D) in 2012. Rehberg is popular in the state and should be aided by the underlying Republican nature of the Last Best Place in a presidential year. Tester won narrowly in 2006 thanks to a series of flubs by gaffe-prone incumbent Conrad Burns (R) but this time around will have to defend six years of Senate votes. (Previous ranking: 10)

4. Missouri (D): Since our last Line, both former Sen. Jim Talent and Rep. Sam Graves announced that they would not run in the GOP primary to face Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). That leaves former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and former congressional candidate Ed Martin as the only declared candidates. Also keep an eye on former Ambassador to Luxembourg Ann Wagner, a former state party chairwoman who may still run after losing the Republican National Committee chairman's race last month. (Previous ranking: 4)

3. Virginia (D): Sen. Jim Webb's (D) retirement was no surprise but it does put Democrats in a tight spot if they want to hold the seat in 2012. All eyes are on Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine who is getting the hard sell on running. Kaine's decision to postpone any announcement until after this weekend's Jefferson-Jackson dinner is good news for those hoping he reconsiders his past disinterest in running. If Kaine is in, this race is a toss up. If not, former Sen. George Allen (R) looks like the frontrunner. (Previous ranking: 3)

2. North Dakota (D): While no heavyweight Republican candidate has yet emerged here, the open seat being vacated by Sen. Kent Conrad (D) is still a major GOP pickup opportunity. There are long lists of potential candidates on both sides. But Democrats have only one statewide official: 75-year-old school superintendent Wayne Sanstead. Republicans are looking at (among others) Rep. Rick Berg, a freshman who took down long-time Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D) last year. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. Nebraska (D): Sen. Ben Nelson (D) appears to be gearing up for a re-election bid, hiring his long-time political adviser Paul Johnson to run the 2012 campaign. But, even with Johnson in the fold, this is a very tough race for Nelson. Nebraska is among the most Republican states in the country and state Attorney General Jon Bruning, the likely GOP nominee, is young and very aggressive. (Previous ranking: 1)

With Aaron Blake and Rachel Weiner

By Chris Cillizza  | February 18, 2011; 3:19 PM ET
Categories:  The Line  
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Next: Afternoon Fix: Bingaman retiring, Napolitano not running

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