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Posted at 10:26 AM ET, 12/ 3/2010

Who will leave the Senate in 2012?

By Chris Cillizza

The central storyline of the early days of the 2012 election cycle in the Senate revolves around retirements.

Open seats are, traditionally, more likely to switch parties than contests where the incumbent is seeking reelection so both parties do their darndest in the early days of every election cycle to convince their members to stay put.

That work is ongoing as we write -- literally -- and will continue over the coming weeks and months.

Until senators make their go/no go announcements, we have history to keep us warm in these cold political nights. (Yes, that's weird. But such is the post-election life of a campaign junkie.)

Since 1996, the average number of Senate retirements has been seven; the fewest retirements (four) during that time period came in 2006 while the most (13) happened twice -- once in 1996 and again in 2010.

Friday Line

Of the 13 retirees in 2010, seven were Democrats and six were GOPers. Republicans held all of their open seats while picking up four Democratic seats.

Not a single Democratic senator retired in the 2008 cycle while five Republicans called it quits. Democrats won three of those five GOP-held seats.

Retirements are more likely to hit Democrats harder this time around for two reasons.

First, they will have to defend 23 seats -- 21 Democrats and two independents who caucus with their side -- as compared to just 10 for Republicans.

Second, the fact that just seven Democrats have retired from the Senate over the last four years suggests that the party could be headed for a higher-than-average number or departures this cycle.

Our Line of the ten Senators most likely to retire in 2012 is below. The number one ranked Senator is considered the most likely to bow out before the 2012 election.

The Line is the result of conversations with strategists on both sides of the partisan aisle as well as a careful parsing of public statements the incumbents themselves have made about their future political plans.

To be clear: Some of the people on the Line have either said they plan to or will be seeking reelection. We take them at their word.

But, we also see circumstances -- states where their party is unpopular, the possibility of a top-tier challenge in a primary or general election -- that could lead them to reconsider their current status.

In other words, this Line can -- and will -- change over the next two years.

To the Line!

10. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.): Lugar's office has been beyond emphatic that the Indiana Republican is going to seek reelection. "There is no chance Senator Lugar will retire," adviser Mark Helmke said. "He is running again, raising money and organizing the campaign." That's a strong enough denial to drop the senator down to the bottom of the Line. But, Lugar is going to be 80 years old in 2012, and he continues to take the kind of votes that practically beg for a tea party challenge -- the latest when he was the lone Republican up in 2012 to vote against a ban on earmarks. He's popular right now, but so were Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) and Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah). If a viable primary challenge materializes, Lugar might have to rethink his plans.

9. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah): There's no doubt that Hatch, 76, is gearing up for a tough race from the tea-party wing of the party. His longtime political adviser, Dave Hansen, is expected to announce soon that he's stepping down as chairman of the Utah Republican Party in order to aid Hatch in his bid for a seventh term, and Hatch spokesperson Antonia Ferrier confirmed that the senator is planning to run for re-election. Still, with Rep. Jason Chaffetz sounding more and more like a candidate and the loss of fellow Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett at the state convention earlier this year, Hatch will have much to ponder over these next few months. If he does indeed run, Hatch will have to answer to his party's right flank on issues such as his vote for the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program. It's worth noting that should Republicans win back the Senate in 2012, Hatch would be poised to take over as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

8. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.): Will North Dakota lose its second Democratic senator to retirement in back to back elections? Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) passed on running again in 2010, and now Conrad faces a similar decision. The good thing for Conrad is that, unlike Dorgan, he doesn't face a potential matchup with popular governor and soon-to-be-senator John Hoeven (R). On the other hand, if Conrad was intent on running for reelection, wouldn't Democrats have given him the plum Agriculture Committee chairmanship? That would have been a real selling point for a reelection campaign. Conrad's office is staying quiet, saying any announcements will be made in his home state. But the senator said recently that he needs to decide "whether or not I want to do this another eight years."

7. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.): Lieberman's path to a fifth term is a difficult one. It's a near certainty that a serious Democrat -- Rep. Chris Murphy, Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz, Ted Kennedy Jr. -- will run, making it virtually impossible for Lieberman to win a primary. And, both former Rep. Rob Simmons and former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon are seen as possible candidates for Republicans. Lieberman could well get squeezed out if he tries again to run as some sort of independent. Retirement may be the more appealing option.

6. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii): The 86-year-old junior senator from Hawaii has repeatedly stated that he's running for re-election in 2012, citing his seniority in the Senate as a major advantage for the state. Akaka spokesperson Jesse Broder Van Dyke also points out that Hawaii's senior senator, Daniel Inouye (D), who was born four days before Akaka, won re-election last month with over 74 percent of the vote. Still, Akaka could have a formidable opponent in outgoing Gov. Linda Lingle (R), who has said that she's seriously considering a bid and will make a decision in mid-2011. Could a Lingle candidacy change Akaka's calculus?

5. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.): Nelson began the 2012 cycle as the most vulnerable Senator, according to our Senate Line. Not only does Nelson represent a state that went heavily for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008 but he also has drawn a quality Republican opponent in state Attorney General Jon Bruning. Nelson will be 71 on Election Day 2012 and, given what he's up against, may decide to step aside.

4. Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.): Kohl's colleague, junior Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold (D), suffered a stinging defeat in this year's midterm elections, as did Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett. Both of those factors are likely to make Kohl, 75, carefully weigh whether he wants to run for a fifth term. If Kohl were to retire, there's much speculation that Feingold would like to run in his place. Rep. Paul Ryan would be the preferred Republican candidate. In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the day after Election Day, Kohl said that he'll "begin the process" of deciding on his political future over the coming weeks and months, noting that "we just had one election."

3. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas): Hutchison is perpetually planning to retire, before she winds up changing her mind. And now, after saying several times over the course of her term that she would step aside, the senator appears to be genuinely considering running for another term. Staring her in the face is a GOP base that is no longer enamored with her and already rejected her when she ran in a primary against Gov. Rick Perry this year. Spokeswoman Courtney Sanders says of Hutchison's plans: "The Senator has not made an announcement about 2012." We, and a bunch of ambitious Texas Republican pols, wait with bated breath.

2. John Ensign (R-Nev.): Ensign got a big break this week when the Justice Department told him it is no longer targeting him. But, the Senate ethics committee is still looking into Ensign's affair with a former staffer and the alleged cover-up that followed. And Nevada Republicans are being unusually open about questioning his political prospects -- a sign that many of them would rather see Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) as their party's nominee. "Senator Ensign fully intends to seek reelection in 2012, at this time," spokeswoman Jennifer Cooper said. The key clause there? "At this time." Translation: things can change.

1. Jim Webb (D-Va.): Even Democrats acknowledge that Webb is, at best, 50-50 on running for a second term. He raised less than $17,000 between July 1 and Sept. 30, numbers that suggest that he may be leaning against a reelection campaign. If Webb bows out, Democrats will likely try to convince Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine to make the race -- though we hear he isn't terribly interested in the prospect. Former Sen. George Allen is a near-certain candidate no matter what Webb does but he could face a primary fight for the GOP nod.

With Aaron Blake and Felicia Sonmez

By Chris Cillizza  | December 3, 2010; 10:26 AM ET
Categories:  The Line  
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