Republicans are poised to take over the U.S. Senate in 2012. This isn't contingent on a GOP presidential win, or even a particularly good campaign year, but rather on the extremely tilted Senate playing field created by the 2006 Democratic landslide. Yet, oddly, that is no comfort for many sitting Republican senators, who may face savage primary challenges if they are even perceived to slight the conservative base. Those with bulls-eyes on their backs presently include Dick Lugar of Indiana, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, and John Ensign of Nevada—exactly half of the Republicans going before voters in 2012.
As we saw with the Tea Party revolt of 2010, this is hardly an idle concern. Conservatives successfully pushed Bob Bennett, Mike Castle, Lisa Murkowski, Arlen Specter, and Charlie Crist out of the party or out of the running—and forced “moderates” such as John McCain and Mark Kirk to flip-flop on issues like climate change and tack hard-right.
This year, the group of endangered senators is quite heterodox. Each can be said to represent a different grievance held by "true conservatives" against the Republican establishment:
The RINO: Olympia Snowe is the only genuine ideological turncoat here. She’s pro-choice, and at least somewhat supportive of gay-rights. She also broke with conservatives to bargain with the Obama administration on the economic stimulus legislation and then voted for it. There is zero question that conservatives, nationally and in her own state, would love to take her out. But do they have the power to do so? A September 2010 Public Policy Polling survey showed Maine Republicans would prefer a more conservative senator by a 63-29 margin, yet no one has yet identified a viable challenger. Snowe has also gained some protection on her right flank, by picking up an early re-election endorsement from Governor Paul LePage, who is close to Maine’s Tea Partiers but is also an old friend of Snowe’s family.
The Mandarin: Richard Lugar of Indiana has never been a favorite of conservatives, but in recent months, he’s really gone out of his way to invite a 2012 primary challenge—by refusing to sign onto an earmark ban; supporting the DREAM Act; and publicly suggesting that the GOP is moving too far to the right. The main reason conservatives would like his head on a pike, though, is that he is the last of the Republican foreign policy mandarins in the Senate. His championing of the new START treaty makes him a major enabler of the Obama administration in the eyes of both the neoconservative and Tea Party factions; and it may well be that the ghost of Jesse Helms returns to torment him. Already, Lugar has almost certainly drawn a 2012 primary opponent in State Senator Mike Delph. This year, conservatives understand they must unite around a single right-wing challenger, since divided opposition allowed another Indiana candidate—Senator Dan Coats—to sail past Tea Party opposition in 2010.
The Democrat-Lover: Utah’s Orrin Hatch was considered a right-wing zealot when he came to the Senate in 1976. Six terms later, conservatives tend to think of Hatch as a Fifth Columnist always ready to sell out "The Cause" if it means a chance to co-sponsor legislation with leading Democrats (his history of collaboration with Ted Kennedy remains a major sore point). Since it’s a taste for bipartisanship that sank Hatch’s Utah colleague Bob Bennett earlier this year, he has reason to worry, particularly given his state’s convention-based nominating process, which gives conservative activists extraordinary power (a poll of delegates to the April 2010 state convention that dumped Bennett showed only 19 percent favoring a seventh term for Hatch). Hatch is also pushing 80 years old, and could face an especially tough challenge from Congressman Jason Chaffetz. But unlike the rest of the names on the bulls-eye list, Hatch may still be able to defend himself by drawing upon his old, semi-dormant relationship with Utah's hard right.
The Tea Party Crasher: Texas’s Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison has been twisting in the political wind since the end of her disastrous primary challenge to Governor Rick Perry. Never popular with serious conservatives, and an outright enemy to the social conservatives who deplore her stubborn defense of legalized abortion, Hutchison chose the worst year imaginable to take on Perry, who fit easily into the mold of a Tea Party hero. She vacillated on whether she would give up her Senate seat to enter the gubernatorial race, which endeared her to no one, and then ran a bad campaign and lost. The biggest question is whether she decides to run again after a two-year hiatus; one possible challenger, Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, is a conservative favorite and—incidentally—African American.
The Sinner: John Ensign seemed well on his way to national conservative stardom, and possibly a presidential bid, when his world blew up with disclosure of a lurid and tangled series of misdeeds including an extramarital affair with a staff member, the payment of hush money, and potential violations of ethics rules and criminal statutes. Now that it appears Ensign will escape a trip to the hoosegow, he’s making noises about running for another term. But he doesn’t have the kind of standing—or for that matter, the money—to chase off primary challengers, who might include Congressman Dean Heller.
So the question is: What would be the implications of these primary challenges for the general election? In Maine, obviously, any Republican other than Olympia Snowe might easily lose. Nevada is expected to be a very competitive state, up and down the ballot, in 2012; and Democratic Congresswoman Shelley Berkely could make a Senate run. Indiana is a conservative state, but it did go for Obama in 2008 and it might be a problematic place to run a hard-right candidate. In Texas, if Hutchison loses her primary to a little-known conservative, or limps wounded into the general election, a challenge by Democrat John Sharp, a longtime statewide officeholder, might have a shot at succeeding. And in Utah, Congressman Jim Matheson could be competitive against Hatch or a more conservative youngster.
In other words, there is a substantial upside for Democrats if and when these challenges emerge. But the only sure thing is that the GOP Senate caucus will likely come out of 2012 more conservative than it came in, and that’s saying a lot. It could mark the year when the phrase “moderate Republican” is retired for good.