WASHINGTON — Less than two months after voters gave Republicans six more Senate seats and control of the House, the GOP is lining up candidates for 2012, well ahead of the pace of previous election cycles.
Looking to ride what they hope will be a continuing Republican wave, nine potential challengers, including two each in Missouri and Virginia, already have said they are weighing bids for the U.S. Senate.
They have an abundance of targets. Twenty-one of the 33 Senate seats up in 2012 are held by Democrats and two others are occupied by independents who align themselves with Democrats. Including those independents, Democrats will hold a 53-47 Senate advantage in the new Congress that convenes Jan. 5. The 10 Republican senators up for re-election in 2012 have yet to draw a challenger.
"I want to do my part in fighting for America's future. That's why I have decided to run for the United States Senate," Republican Sarah Steelman said in announcing her challenge to Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Former Sen. Jim Talent, too, is weighing a rematch against McCaskill. The two faced off in 2006 and McCaskill won in that Democratic wave. [See who donates money to McCaskill.]
Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos has visited Washington to talk about his expected Senate bid against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who won a second term with 60 percent of the vote in 2006. George LeMieux, who's leaving the Senate after filling the last 15 months of Republican Mel Martinez' term through an appointment, might also seek Nelson's seat.
Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who won by 28 percentage points four years ago, drew an early challenger in state attorney general Jon Bruning just days after last month's election.
In Montana, first-term Democratic Sen. Jon Tester has drawn GOP businessman Steve Daines as a challenger. Republican Marc Scaringi has announced a campaign against Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, another 2006 winner expected to face a tough re-election bid.
"That's really a reflection of the opportunity people see," said Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who heads the GOP Senate campaign.
In an interview, Corynyn recalled having a hard time finding Republicans willing to challenge Senate Democrats after President Barack Obama's landslide in 2008.
"It was hard to recruit people early on in 2009," Cornyn said. "As time went by, people sensed an opportunity.
"I remember specifically, Mark Kirk, who was the only Republican who could win in Illinois. He was pretty hesitant, running for the Obama Senate seat, knowing the Democratic machine would be throwing everything they had at him," Cornyn said . "Eventually, he came around and decided to make the run."
Kirk, a five-term House member, defeated Illinois' Democratic state treasurer Alexi Gianoulias to win election in November to finish Obama's term.
The collapse of Obama's sky-high popularity was a major factor, Cornyn acknowledged. In February 2009, Obama had a 67 percent approval rating in an AP-GfK poll. The weekend after November election, the same poll found Obama had 47 percent approval to 51 percent disapproval.
"When we went into the campaign in January 2009, it looked one way" Cornyn said. "By November 2010, it changed dramatically."
Democrats find themselves having to defend so many seats because of their success in 2006, when they picked up six seats in the Senate and also took the House away from Republicans after a dozen years of GOP control.