The Brewing Republican Senate Primary Tempest

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Former Missouri state treasurer Sarah Steelman announced her challenge to Senator Claire McCaskill on Wednesday. Jim Talent, who held the seat before McCaskill did, is reportedly close to joining the race himself. It’s the very beginning of what’s likely to be a long, crowded and wild 2012 primary season for Republicans nationwide. Here’s why:

There are a number of seats so ripe for the picking that there’s going to be a flood of Republican candidates eager to run. Missouri is a good example. McCaskill beat Talent in 2006 by fewer than 50,000 votes. Obama narrowly lost the Show Me State in 2008 and, this year, Republican Roy Blunt massacred Democrat Robin Carnahan in the Senate race. With the trend line heading in their direction, Republicans feel good about their chances to pick this one up. It’s still 2010 and there may already be a Tea Party vs. Establishment skirmish between Steelman and Talent on the way.

Nebraska is Redder than Missouri and Ben Nelson got himself a challenger just days after this year’s campaign season came to a close in early November. Republican Governor Dave Heineman passed and Attorney General Jon Bruning jumped at the opportunity. Expect a crowded field simply because Nelson, weakened by tough votes and his health care theatrics, is so very vulnerable.

In Virginia, where Reps. Perriello, Nye and Boucher just got wiped out Bob McDonnell drubbed Creigh Deeds in the 2009 governor’s race, Jim Webb is up (though he may just retire.) Webb narrowly beat George Allen in the 2006 wave year and, now that the “macaca” heat has died down a bit, Allen is gunning for his old job. But Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart is already lobbing bombs and wildcard attorney general Ken Cucinelli is ambitious. It could be a very full field. The same goes for Florida where outgoing Senate appointee George LeMieux is looking for a way back to Congress and state senate president Mike Haridopolos, among others, has designs on Bill Nelson’s seat himself.

Overall, 2012 is an opportunity for major GOP gains; there are thirteen more Democratic seats up than Republican ones (23 to 10). But the primary scrum will be fought in territory currently held by Republicans as well. Scott Brown has seen the Tea Partiers who swept him into office recoil at his moderate record. Although he didn’t vote for it in the end, Bob Corker pitched in to help write pieces of the Democrat’s financial regulatory reform law. Orrin Hatch saw the perils of Utah’s convention system in action when his colleague Bob Bennet was ousted this year. Kay Bailey Hutchison took on Rick Perry. Dick Lugar has worked closely with the Obama administration on nonproliferation. Olympia Snowe is apparently worried enough about a Tea Party challenge that she reversed course on earmarks. Compare that list to 2010 when arguably only three GOP incumbents — Bennett, Lisa Murkowski and John McCain — had major targets painted on their backs by the right.

The party Establishment is signaling that it won’t be affording those targeted any special treatment. National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman John Cornyn told the National Review as much Wednesday: “All incumbents need to be prepared for primaries.”