Things are beginning to break in the 2012 Senate contests.
Major factors in the eventual outcome include which incumbents decide not to run again. The retirement announcements have begun.
First, the announcement that Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison will step down after this term. This seat should remain in Republican hands.
Then, the startling decision by North Dakota Democratic Senator Kent Conrad to retire. A seat the Democrats were favored for now goes into the toss up or even leaning Republican column. Republicans made strong gains in the state in 2010 and hope to expand their victories.
Now, Connecticut independent Senator Joseph Lieberman has said that after four terms, he will not run again. Chalk one up for the Democrats; without the incumbent running as an independent, Democrats will be favored for the seat.
Undoubtedly there will be other retirements. Speculation centers on Senators Jim Webb (D-VA), Daniel Akaka (D-HI), John Ensign (R-NV), Herb Kohl (D-WI), and a few others.
Still, it is impossible to make realistic predictions about most of the 2012 Senate contests.
The key numbers: 21 Democrat seats are up for election in 2012 plus two independents who caucus with the Democrats.
There are only 10 seats for the Republicans to defend.
Much depends on the mood of the country in November 2012. In November 2006, the electorate turned on the Republicans. It happened again in November 2008. In November 2010, the electorate turned on the Democrats.
The mood of the country depends in a major way on the economy. A clearly growing economy that drives the unemployment rate down will produce different results than an economy remaining in the doldrums with unemployment staying stubbornly high.
The Presidential contest in 2012 will play a major role in Senate races as well. A strong Obama campaign against a weak Republican nominee will help Democratic candidates while a successful Republican effort to make Obama a one-term President will help the out-party.
Another key factor: which new candidates decide to run.
Two historical oddities:
1. Two Senators have to run in 2012 after having just run in 2010: Gillibrand in New York and Manchin in West Virginia, who both won special elections for partial terms and now have to run again for the full term.
2. There could be two or more rematches from 2006: McCaskill (D) vs. Talent (R) in Missouri and Webb (D) vs. Allen (R) in Virginia.