On Friday morning, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint sent a blast email to his Senate Conservatives Fund list blasting former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson as a RINO (Republican In Name Only) and endorsing his Tea Party challenger Mark Neumann. In 2010, DeMint made himself no favorite of the leadership by using his PAC to support non-establishment, mostly Tea Party candidates. Republicans arguably lost the opportunity to take back the Senate because at least three of those candidates – Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Ken Buck in Colorado and Nevada’s Sharron Angle – lost their general elections.
Despite DeMint’s antics, this time around Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has bigger worries. Democrats control 23 of the 33 seats up in 2012, many in red states like Montana, Nebraska and West Virginia, and by every expectation they should lose the Senate. But Republicans have had a hard time finding candidates willing to go through a Tea Party primary —ahem, Tommy Thompson. Democrats have also kept pace with fundraising. And Republicans are finding they have a couple of their own seats to defend, particularly in Indiana where Dick Lugar is facing a Tea Party primary challenge (DeMint has stayed noticeably mum in this race) and in Massachusetts where Elizabeth Warren is taking on Scott Brown.
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, have had a good year for candidate recruitment. When Senator Kent Conrad announced his retirement earlier this year, most people wrote off North Dakota, but former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp has proven a great recruit for Democrats and on Thursday the non-partisan Cook Political Report, which tracks congressional races, named the race a toss-up. Democrats have also found a strong candidate in Arizona, where GOP Senator Jon Kyl is retiring, in Richard Carmona, a Surgeon General in George W. Bush’s administration.
Democrats are still more likely than not to lose the Senate, but, led by Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chair Patty Murray, they’re putting up a decent fight. “I think we’re very, very likely to keep the Senate,” New York Democrat Chuck Schumer boasted on Thursday, “and I think there’s a darn good chance we stay the same or pick up seats.”