Even if nothing else happens, the U.S. Senate elections in 2012 will be remarkable because about a quarter of those eligible for re-election will not be on the ballot.
Coupled with the retirements-slash-party turnovers in the 2010 elections, the Senate has become less of a somber, deliberative body with the election of relative newcomers who tend to push the body along at a faster pace.
Eight of the 33 senators up for re-election next year have announced their intentions to retire: Democrats Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Kent Conrad of North Dakota and James Webb of Virginia; Republicans Jon Kyl of Arizona, John Ensign of Nevada and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, and independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut who caucuses with the Democrats.
Democrat Herb Kohl of Wisconsin says he'll decide whether he'll run in a few months. All other senators whose terms expire next year indicated they would run again.
Several senators -- all Republicans -- who so far say they're in for 2012 already face a testy electorate questioning whether the solons are conservative enough.
Why the lack of appetite to seek re-election? The Washington Post offered two possible reasons. One, campaign committees are pushing members to decide whether they'll seek re-election earlier in the cycle so the party can find an electable replacement then get the funding machine in place to mount a campaign. Two, large numbers of retirements usually follow a shift in power, in this case an erosion of the Democratic majority in the Senate and a turnover of power to Republicans in the House.
But take heart: There are fewer than 610 days until Election Day, Nov. 6, 2012.
Ensign's decision not to run yields sigh of relief
When Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., announced he would not seek re-election, Republican leaders in Nevada breathed easier because many were worried his announcement would come later, if at all, Roll Call said.
Ensign was facing a Senate Ethics Committee investigation stemming from an affair with Cynthia Hampton, a former aide's wife in 2009. The aide, Doug Hampton, said Ensign helped him find work as a lobbyist and Ensign's parents gave the Hamptons nearly $100,000.
Ensign's exit is expected to speed up action in both parties to field candidates and ramp up campaigning and fundraising.
Rep. Dean Heller already has begun fundraising for an anticipated Senate run, which insiders told Roll Call was all but assured.
"Most people in Nevada speculate that he will get in the race and will be the clear favorite," GOP strategist Robert Uithoven said. "We won't see a primary like we saw in 2010, with 15 people running to take on (Sen.) Harry Reid."
Republicans, still smarting at the missed opportunity to upend the extremely vulnerable Senate majority leader, were nervous about a potential expensive and nasty primary between Ensign and Heller -- and the possibility of Ensign, with his baggage, advancing to the general election.
Democrats' eyes are on Rep. Shelley Berkley, who has the right of first refusal, insiders said.
Ensign's retirement "immediately accelerates the pace by which the Democrats have to sort out who is going to run," Nevada Democratic consultant Dan Hart said. "I think it puts pressure on Congresswoman Berkley to make a decision."
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Executive Director Guy Cecil, in a statement to Roll Call, called Ensign's seat "ripe for a Democratic pickup … (and) … remains high on our target list."
Still a wild card is Sharron Angle, who ran unsuccessfully against Reid. She has said she's not sure what office she to seek -- either on a national or statewide level.
Kohl taking his time about deciding
Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., hasn't indicated whether he'll seek re-election, opting to wait until later this year to make an announcement.
However, he recently plunked down $1 million in personal funds into his campaign account, taken as a sign the senator would seek a fifth term, Roll Call reported.
"Sen. Kohl will announce his decision later this year," spokeswoman Dawn Schueller said. "Right now he is focused entirely on doing his job and working hard to represent the people of Wisconsin."
Hatch works to patch things up with Tea Party activists
Veteran Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has been working to improve his lot with Tea Party activists, visiting with some and hiring one of the movement's organizers.
"There's no question that a lot of good talent came out of the 2010 election," Hatch's campaign manager, Dave Hansen, told The Salt Lake Tribune. "It is nice to have new people involved."
But one person's job opportunity is another person's bribery. Darcy Van Orden, co-founder of Utah Rising, said she refused a job offer with Hatch's campaign.
"He is going around and paying people $2,500 a month to recruit delegates and what I want him to know is that the Tea Party is not for sale," she said.
Hatch's history of reaching across the aisle to work with Democrats, as well as his vote for the Wall Street bailout, doesn't sit well with a lot of Tea Party activists and other conservatives. Since the grassroots movement successfully ousted long-time Sen. Bob Bennett before the Utah primary, Hatch has been working to deflect criticism by highlighting his conservative cred. He recently led the Senate GOP push for a balanced budget amendment and was a co-sponsor of a Republican amendment to repeal the new healthcare law.
He also sat down Tea Party activists during the recent Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Washington.
"I appreciate the outreach, but at the same time, his only goal is to keep his own power and get re-elected," Van Orden said. "If Hatch were re-elected, he would be a lame duck and have no accountability to the people."
Republicans unhappy with Maine's Snowe
Maine Republicans apparently would like to rain on Sen. Olympia Snowe's parade and replace her with someone with a more conservative bent, a recent Public Policy Polling survey indicated.
Only 33 percent of primary voters in the state said they would support Snowe, a Republican who is known for breaking ranks, compared to 58 percent who said they preferred the generic "more conservative candidate."
It's all ideology, the poll said. Fifty-eight percent of primary voters said they thought she was too liberal while 37 percent said her ideology was about where it should be.
In fact, most Republicans said they didn't think Snowe belongs to their party. Thirty-four percent said they think she should be an independent, 33 percent said they think she should be a Democrat and 27 percent said they thought she should remain in the Grand Old Party.
Tea Party also says it's time for Lugar to leave
The last time Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., faced an opponent in a Republican primary was when he first won election to the U.S. Senate in 1976 -- but that may change if Tea Party activists have a say.
Tea Party groups are searching for a candidate to oppose Lugar, who won in 2006 with 87 percent of the vote, The Christian Science Monitor reported.
"(There) are a great number of Americans, not just in Indiana, who are genuinely angry about how things have turned out for them," Lugar said during a Monitor-sponsored forum. "(The) Tea Party people reflect a good number of people who are unhappy about a lot of things, including myself -- and any office holder, for that matter."
Lugar was instrumental in lining up Republican votes to help pass the U.S.-Russia strategic arms control treaty, which caused much unhappiness among Tea Party activists.
Lugar's internal polling from November 2010 indicated he led a 66 percent approval and 17 percent disapproval rating among all Hoosiers, the Monitor said. But when the poll ratcheted down on voters within the Republican party, results showed Lugar faced "a much more competitive situation, with many more questions asked."