The early line on Senate 2012 races — will the balance of power shift?

August 22, 2011

As the Republican presidential race begins in earnest, so are Senate campaigns across the country.

On Monday, former congressman Chris Shays (R) announced he would run for an open seat in Connecticut in 2012, while Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Allen B. West (R-Fla.) both announced they would not run.

Those three decisions came just days after former Obama administration adviser Elizabeth Warren announced that she was forming an exploratory committee to face Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), possibly giving Democrats their first top-tier challenger in that race.

The four decisions are all major announcements in key Senate races that could go a long way toward determining the balance of power in the chamber after the 2012 election.

Republicans need to gain four seats to win control of the chamber — a very attainable goal given that 23 of the 33 seats up for election are currently under Democratic control.

The GOP is currently favored by many experts to take Democratic seats in North Dakota and Nebraska. Beyond that, there are seats in 10 or 12 states that are in play. The high stakes involved will make 2012 the fourth straight election cycle in which enough seats are in play to potentially switch control of the majority.

The biggest surprise on Monday is not likely to affect the balance of power, however: It came from Chaffetz, a two-term House member who was expected to challenge incumbent Sen. Orrin G. Hatch for the nomination. Polling has shown Hatch with serious vulnerabilities to a more conservative challenger like Chaffetz, but the congressman said he is more interested in enlarging his role and growing his profile in the House.

“Ultimately, I can spend the next 15 months doing my job, or I can spend the next 15 months campaigning to do Senator Hatch’s,” Chaffetz said in a statement.

Like Chaffetz, conservatives and tea party supporters looked to West as a potential hero in the increasingly crowded GOP primary to face Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).

But West, after announcing last week that he wouldn’t rule out a Senate run, said Monday that he was again closing the door on the idea. The freshman — one of two black Republicans in the freshman class — said he wanted to remain in the House.

Shays, meanwhile, will attempt to resurrect his political career, which ended with a 2008 reelection loss in a Democratic-leaning district that he had represented for two decades.

He is likely to face a primary with former World Wrestling Entertainment executive Linda McMahon, who was the GOP nominee for another open seat in Connecticut last year.

Democrats will be favored to hold the seat, which belongs currently to Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), who is retiring. But Shays’s entry provides Republicans with an interesting choice.

Just as in 2010, McMahon is likely to face a more moderate Republican who may be a better fit for the state’s Democratic-leaning politics. Last year McMahon vastly outspent her moderate opponent, former congressman Rob Simmons, and rallied the support of the establishment as she won the primary.

The party establishment again looks as though it may face a choice between a candidate whose politics fit the state and one who has tens of millions of dollars to spend on the race.

There is some precedent in recent years for a moderate Republican winning in the Northeast, with Brown’s special election victory early last year serving as the best example. Warren’s possible entry into the race, though, means he will likely have to fight for a full term next November.

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Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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