Last fall, Republicans rode a wave of anti-Democratic public sentiment and achieved historic gains in the midterm elections. The GOP seized the House of Representatives with a net pickup of 63 seats, but fell four votes shy of a majority in the Senate. Given the nonstop nature of modern American politics, operatives from both parties are already gaming out scenarios for the 2012 election cycle. The political topography heavily favors Republicans, who appear well positioned to secure at least a bare majority next year if they competently manage their strong hand.
Of the 33 seats that are up in 2012, 23 of them are currently held by Democrats or "independents" who caucus with Democrats. Republicans face the comparatively modest task of defending just 10 seats, only a small handful of which are expected to be competitive races. Adding to next cycle's volatility is a recent string of Senate retirements – eight so far – that is historic in its own right. The Fix reports that nearly one-fourth of the entire 2012 Senate class has already opted out of seeking re-election, representing “one of the biggest classes of retirees in history.”
A key to success in electoral politics is prioritization. How are Republicans planning to turn a 47-53 Senate disadvantage into a majority next year? The math is fairly simple, according to a number of GOP strategists: Pluck four low-hanging seats away from Democrats, and work on augmenting a majority from there. Republicans believe they can plausibly compete for at least ten seats currently controlled by Democrats.
Top Tier (likeliest pickups):
(1) North Dakota: Democrat Kent Conrad is following his colleague Byron Dorgan, into retirement. Republican John Hoeven claimed Dorgan’s open seat by a 54 point landslide in 2010, and Conrad’s vacant seat is widely expected to fall into GOP hands next year. Stuart Rothenberg rates this race as “Republican favored.”