WASHINGTON -- Democrats facing a difficult Senate landscape in 2012 are hoping the Tea Party comes to their rescue -- again.
In 2010, all that stopped a GOP juggernaut from taking over the Senate was a string of losses in Colorado, Delaware and Nevada, where Tea Party insurgents Ken Buck, Christine O'Donnell and Sharron Angle all lost after bumping off more mainstream Republicans.
Democrats have to defend 23 Senate seats next year compared to Republicans' 10 in a sour political climate. If the GOP can net four seats, they're guaranteed to control the Senate. So Democrats are looking for help anywhere they can get it -- and they're seeing signs over the last few days that the Tea Party could deal an unintended assist, again.
Republicans note that they actually won seven contests in 2010 -- including with Tea Party candidates -- and that the conservative uprising generated tremendous energy to take over the House.
Still, Democrats are already looking at about a dozen primaries on the GOP side, and think at least four -- in Michigan, Nebraska, Indiana and Wisconsin -- are showing signs of a Tea Party surge that could work in their favor.
In Michigan, incumbent Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow is considered a slight favorite over former Rep. Pete Hoekstra. If the well-known Hoekstra is the GOP nominee, Stabenow and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee seem sure to face an expensive, bruising contest.
But Hoekstra is facing a growing challenge for Clark Durant, a lawyer who once worked for Ronald Reagan. He's has been picking up support with conservatives who are angry that Hoekstra backed the Troubled Asset Relief Program bank bailout and works as a lobbyist.
In Indiana, few think incumbent GOP Sen. Dick Lugar would lose to Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly. But Democrats think Donnelly would have a strong chance against Tea Party-respected State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who recently admitted he unloaded all his stocks ahead of last summer's debt-ceiling fight. Mourdock recently trounced Lugar in a Tea Party straw poll, 96 to 1.
Wisconsin had looked to be a shoo-in primary contest for the former Republican governor, Tommy Thompson, who still enjoys wide support in the state. But he's facing a strong attack from his right in the form of former Rep. Mark Neumann.
One Democratic insider also thinks Tea Party dynamics in Nebraska favor Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, whose contest is currently ranked a toss-up. There, the GOP establishment pick, state Attorney General Jon Bruning is fending off state Treasurer Don Stenberg. Both have catered to Tea Party groups for endorsements, moving towards positions on Medicare and Social Security that Democrats think will damage both.
"Nelson is staking his whole campaign on Medicare and Social Security, as their grand protector," the Democratic operative said.
While Tea Party leaders tend to have differing views on politics, Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler -- one of the more influential Tea Party operatives -- suggested that Democrats are living in an alternate reality if they think attracting the energy and enthusiasm of conservative activists will hurt any candidate.
"It's the Democratic consultants that are 'out of the mainstream,' " Meckler said. "And frankly, we're happy for them to stay there. They underestimated us in 2010, and they are making the same mistake in 2012. So I look forward to drinking a hearty toast to them on election night 2012, just as I did in 2010."
Meckler also said that there is a big difference between the last election cycle and this one, in that the Tea Party groups are now more established and better organized, and better able to dictate their own terms.
"I think that the electoral tsunami coming in 2012 will make 2010 look like a ripple in a tide pool," he said. "The millions of activists who were new in 2010 are now well-trained and experienced. We all understand the system much better than ever before. Our base is far more activated and motivated than we were in 2010, and we are now armed with the tools and the experience."
He also added a warning for the GOP. "On the [Republican] side, the candidates who embrace Tea Party values will get the energy. Those who don't, won't. It's pretty simple," he said.
It's statements like that -- despite Meckler's opinion on enthusiasm -- that Democrats see as a bad sign for the GOP.
“Months before a single Republican Senate primary, the Tea Party and grassroots conservatives are already waging an all out war against Republican candidates coronated by the D.C. Republican establishment,” emailed Matt Canter, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
“Extreme Tea Party challengers across the country are gaining momentum attacking establishment candidates like the Tea Party’s enemy number one Dick Lugar, lobbyist and TARP supporter Pete Hoekstra, big spender and lobbyist Tommy Thompson and ethically challenged Attorney General Jon Bruning," Canter added. "With Tea Party challengers already showing strength, the stage is set for the same bruising primary battles that killed Republican general election chances in 2010."
Canter's counterpart at the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, Brian Walsh, thought "killed" was a bit off the mark, and suggested Canter's enthusiasm for the Tea Party betrayed weakness in his own candidates.
"If national Democrats spent as much time helping their candidates craft common-sense policies and messages on the economy as they do trying to pitch Republican primary narratives, maybe they wouldn’t have lost seven seats last year, while finding themselves on defense in just as many this cycle as well," Walsh said. "Republicans have a laser-like focus on jobs and the economy, and that’s why we’re on offense in key states around the country."
More on these key Senate races to watch in 2012:
Former Wisconsin GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson seemed like a shoo-in to take on Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin -- until former Rep. Mark Neumann won the embrace of Tea Party activists who want "anybody but Tommy."
Democratic incumbent Sen. Ben Nelson decided not to run for reelection earlier this year. Democrats are hoping that Republicans vying for the seat, chiefly state Attorney General Jon Bruning and state Treasurer Don Stenberg, will move too far to the right in catering to the Tea Party for endorsements, leaving Democratic frontrunner and former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey with an easier path to victory.
Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow could face a tough contest from former Rep. Pete Hoekstra, but Tea Party enthusiasts are already targeting him for backing the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and for working as a lobbyist, while promoting the more conservative Clark Durant.
Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar is regarded as unbeatable by Democrats, but if state Treasurer Richard Mourdock can beat him in a primary, Democrats hope Rep. Joe Donnelly can wind up on top in the general election.