The Off-the-Radar Congressional Targets of 2012

These aren't the flashy marquee races of 2012, but they could be crucial in the battle for Congress.

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The parties are preparing to go to war for control of Congress this year, looking over the national map and drawing up battle plans. While there are many top match-ups—the Virginia, Ohio, and Missouri Senate races, for example—there are also states that are less likely battlegrounds but could end up being crucial contests. With Nebraska looking like a easy win for Republicans, the GOP is planning on broadening the field and going after more incumbent Democrats. But there are also some races where the Democratic Party could pull off an upset. Here are some of the under-the-radar races in 2012.

 Hawaii

It's a deep blue state in the middle of the deep blue ocean, and it hasn't had a Republican senator since Hiram Fong retired in 1977. And its native son, Barack Obama, will be leading the Democratic ticket in November, ensuring that the Republican presidential nominee will likely make very little, if any, push in the state. So why do Republicans think they have a shot in the state's Senate race?

Sen. Daniel Akaka—who, after 22 years in the Senate, is still the state's junior senator behind Daniel Inouye, who served since 1963—is stepping down, creating an open seat. Former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle is expected make a serious challenge for the seat. While it's still an uphill climb for the GOP, Republican campaign staffers say that with Nebraska apparently out of the picture, the party will be able to make a stronger push for Democratic-leaning seats, including Hawaii. That may force Democrats to shift resources to defend their turf rather than go after Republicans. [Recess Showdown in Congress Over Richard Cordray?]

 Indiana

Aside from the 2008 vote, when the Hoosier state went for Obama, Indiana has a history as one of the most Republican states in the union. Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, running for his seventh term, is such a popular figure in his home state that the Democratic Party neglected to run anyone against him in 2006. But Lugar, who has a penchant for bucking his party, is one of the top targets of the Tea Party movement looking to pick off members of the old GOP guard. Although he would be all but unbeatable in the general election, Lugar faces a tough primary challenge against Richard Mourdock, the Indiana state treasurer. If Lugar is defeated, Democrats in the state think Rep. Joe Donnelly, a Democrat from northern Indiana, has a shot at capturing the seat. [Opinion: Tea Party hurting GOP's Senate takeover chances.]

 Maine

Republican Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe is one of the last of a dying breed—the northeastern moderate Republican, and faces a difficult path in any election. Not only must she convince her state's Republicans to accept her unorthodox opinions in the primary, but she must also win back her state's moderate and Democratic voters in the general. But despite those challenges, she prevailed in her re-election in 2006, weathering that year's Democratic tide.

This year, though, she's facing tougher competition. The Tea Party movement is primed to run against her in the primary, and unlike in 2006, she'll probably face a Democrat with a decent resume, former Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.

 West Virginia

Former Gov. Joe Manchin won a heated special election in 2010 to hold the seat vacated by the death of longtime West Virginia senator and icon Robert Byrd. He seems poised for an easy re-election victory, but the state is still tilting rightward, and Obama is not likely to help Manchin much there. While most political analysts think that Manchin is safe after Rep. Shelley Moore Capito declined to run, an upset here isn't impossible to imagine.

 Arizona: The Race for Gifford's Seat

In these partisan, rancorous times, Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords, who miraculously survived a head gunshot wound in January 2011, has become a figure beloved by both sides of the political spectrum. But it's still unclear whether Giffords, who's made only one vote on the Hill since the attack, will run for re-election in 2012. The Tuscon-area district will become more blue due to redistricting, but is still highly competitive, and if Giffords declines to run for re-election, the open seat will likely be subject to a heated battle.