MADISON, Wis. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl's surprise decision to retire will keep the political spotlight shining brightly on Wisconsin as Republicans eye a golden opportunity to pick up a Senate seat that has been under Democratic control for more than two decades.
The seat will also be one of at least eight open spots helping determine the balance of power in the Senate, where Republicans need to pick up just four seats to take control.
Republican prospects for 2012 were good before Kohl's announcement, and now they are somewhat better. Even if Democrats find a solid nominee in Wisconsin, they almost surely will have to divert more money and manpower to the state than they would have if the millionaire Kohl ran for re-election.
Wisconsin, which went strongly for President Barack Obama in 2008 but swung abruptly to the right in the 2010 midterm elections, was already expected to be another battleground for Obama and Democrats.
"We've seen the state tilt both directions rather sharply in just a two-year period," said Charles Franklin, a founder of pollster.com and a University of Wisconsin political science professor. "This is the tie breaker, the chance for the state to decide whether it wants to reconsider in either direction."
Republican Gov. Scott Walker has emboldened conservatives and angered Democrats with his high-profile fight against public sector unions, which generated weeks of protests and motivated ongoing efforts to recall six Republican state senators from office. There's also talk of launching a recall election against Walker, who took office in January.
"If there's one place in the country where Republicans have overplayed their hand, it's in the state of Wisconsin, and that gives Democrats an even better opening to hold this seat," said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
But the backlash is hitting Democrats too, with three state senators who fled the state during the union fight also targeted for recalls. And Democrats are still smarting from the November elections that saw Republicans defeat liberal Democratic U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, pick up two congressional seats and win control of both houses of the Legislature.
Two of the losers from that election — Feingold and gubernatorial candidate and current Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett — are being mentioned as possible candidates to keep Kohl's seat in Democratic hands. Feingold remains popular with progressives, and a movement to draft him to run was launched online within minutes of Kohl's announcement Friday.
Feingold wasn't commenting publicly after Kohl made his announcement, but he said last month that he had no plans to run. Barrett, who remains a popular mayor and formerly served in Congress, announced his plans to run for re-election as mayor well before he knew Kohl was stepping down.
Also mentioned as candidates are current U.S. Reps. Ron Kind and Tammy Baldwin. Kind, who represents western Wisconsin, considered a run for governor last year but stepped aside for Barrett. Baldwin, of Madison, is one of the most liberal members of Congress and openly gay.
Although they're coming off losses, both Feingold and Barrett have widespread name recognition and, perhaps more importantly, the ability to raise a lot of money for what will be a hard-fought race.
Feingold would be the most formidable candidate, despite coming off a loss, and until he announces his intentions other Democrats will likely stay away, Franklin said.
The possible Republican candidates also include well-known names, chief among them U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee. He has even been whispered in some circles as a candidate for vice president next year.
"For him to give up the budget committee for an uncertain outcome in the Senate would be a very risky maneuver," Franklin said.
Other possible candidates include Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, who just won re-election to a second term in 2010 with 58 percent of the vote, former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, who lost in the Republican gubernatorial primary last year, and a pair of brothers who lead the Wisconsin Legislature and are closely tied to Walker and his anti-union plan — Scott and Jeff Fitzgerald.
Brian Walsh, spokesman for the GOP Senate campaign organization, said Kohl's retirement "immediately presents another key opportunity for Senate Republicans next year." He said it also dilutes national Democrats' ability "to go on offense while they fight to maintain their dwindling Senate majority."
Democratic retirements in Virginia and New Mexico will make those races highly competitive. Thus far, the only Republican retirements are in Texas and Arizona, where the party will be favored to keep the seats.
Democratic senators will seek re-election in several states that Obama lost in 2008: Missouri, Nebraska, Montana and West Virginia.
Also seeking new terms are Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Bill Nelson of Florida. As in Wisconsin, Republicans gained solid control of those states' governments in last year's elections, and they hope to carry their momentum into 2012.
The Democrats' best hope of grabbing a GOP-held seat is in Massachusetts. First-term Sen. Scott Brown will try to keep the chair held for years by the late Edward Kennedy.
GOP pollster David Winston said Kohl's retirement is good news for Republicans because "open seats are always simpler situations than dealing with incumbents." If the public's sour mood about the country's direction continues into 2012, Winston said, Democrats will have a tough time keeping their Senate majority.
Associated Press writer Charles Babington contributed to this report from Washington.