Only three weeks into the 112th Congress and oddsmakers are pondering whether Texas Rep. Ron Paul could become the next Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
The three-term Texas Republican senator announced earlier this month that she will retire at the end of her term in 2012, raising the specter of potential political moves by Texas politicos.
Top of the list for many a Texan is Paul. But don't count on it.
Paul told the National Journal on Thursday that he is not even considering it -- and is still weighing another presidential bid in 2012.
A Senate run "only crosses my mind because people ask me about it," Paul told the news outlet. "I don't think it's a real possibility."
Hutchison is one of three senators -- along with Democratic Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Kent Conrad of North Dakota -- to announce a pending departure. The three were all up for re-election in 2012, but only North Dakota's race so far looks ripe for a party turnover.
Still, with a 53-47 Democratic majority in the Senate, the announcement has fueled Republican talk of a possible Senate takeover next year. Democrats are defending 23 seats, including the two independent-labeled lawmakers, while Republicans have only 10 to keep.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday he's not going to make any guesses about how well Republicans are positioned for the next election.
"Retirements happen in every cycle and we have a tendency maybe to read more into it than we should. We had six Republican retirements in the last Congress. But I'm not going to predict what's going to happen in '12. We do like the odds. We think that having 23 Democrats up and only 10 Republicans is certainly helpful," McConnell, R-Ky., told "Fox News Sunday."
With the numbers game always in mind, election fever has strategists combing the party ranks in the states, looking for who may become one of the newest senators in 113th Congress.
In a Public Policy Polling survey of 400 Texas Republican primary voters taken Jan. 13-14, Paul came in second, 21-23 percent, to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a poll of nine names of potential GOP replacements for Hutchison. "Other" ranked third with 19 percent.
Behind those choices were Attorney General Gregg Abbott, who earned 14 percent of the poll respondents' votes; Rep. Joe Barton, with 7 percent; Texas Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones, with 6 percent; and Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, with 3 percent.
Former Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams received only 1 percent of the vote, but if name recognition is the key, Williams may have some help to boost his own -- former President George H.W. Bush last week endorsed Williams, a trustee at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.
Williams, who formed an exploratory committee in December 2008 when he first debated a Senate race, claims to be the "runaway leader in fundraising and endorsements in the race," but it is Dewhurst who is earning all the buzz right now, and not always in a good way.
Those ready to take on Dewhurst say he's too moderate, a claim at which he and his supporters scoff. Tea Party activist Ken Emanuelson told the Associated Press that Dewhurst "is certainly not the grassroots' favorite" to replace Hutchison, who also had her Tea Party detractors.
On top of that, the Senate Conservatives Fund, run by U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., weighed into the race last week saying it won't endorse "liberal or wishy-washy Republicans."
Laying out the requirements to win an SCF endorsement -- an invaluable boost for some candidates -- the group said any would-be candidate in Texas will have "to demonstrate a deep commitment to conservative principles as well as a willingness to stand up to their own party when it's wrong."
It added that while "the Washington establishment appears to be lining up" behind Dewhurst, its preferred conservatives are Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams and former Solicitor General Ted Cruz. Each received 3 percent in the PPP poll.
"Michael is an outstanding conservative leader and he will be at the very top of our list as we consider candidates for an endorsement in the 2012 election," the statement reads.
As Goes Texas, There Goes Connecticut in the Other Direction
While SCF's influence may be felt in the great state of Texas, where Democrats -- notably Texas Comptroller John Sharp and former Houston mayor Bill White -- appear to stand a small chance of prevailing in a general election match-up, the group won't carry the same sway in Connecticut, where former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz declared even before Lieberman announced his retirement that she was going to run for the seat.
Bysiewicz filed her paperwork in December. She is a Democrat who served as secretary of state for 12 years, and before that as a state House representative. She is the first candidate to announce an intention to replace Lieberman, the independent senator and former Democratic vice presidential candidate who announced he's calling it a day after four terms in office.
But Bysiewicz is not alone in her pursuit. A day after Lieberman's announcement, Rep. Christopher Murphy, a three-term Democrat, said he too is jumping in the ring.
"I believe that I can be a stronger voice for the issues that matter to Connecticut, like creating good jobs and ending these costly wars in the Senate," he said in a statement accompanying a web video addressed to supporters.
Others also named as potential Democratic candidates include Ted Kennedy Jr., -- yes, that Ted Kennedy, Jr. -- who would have to move his residence from Massachusetts rather than use his Connecticut law practice address to establish residency, and Rep. Joe Courtney, also a third-term congressman.
On the Republican side, many are wondering whether Linda McMahon will be ready to rumble again after the beating she took in the polls by now-Sen. Richard Blumenthal. McMahon could also see company from Republican Tom Foley, who lost his gubernatorial bid last November by a hair, and Rep. Rob Simmons, the Republican congressman McMahon defeated in the primary.
McMahon said on a Facebook post last week that “2012 remains an option” but she’s going to take “the next few months focusing on how I can best serve the people of Connecticut.” Simpson reportedly is also keeping his cards on the table, while Foley has not indicated his plans.
Bysiewicz has already conducted internal polling, which she released last week. In mid-December, the polling firm of Bennet, Petts & Normington reportedly showed Bysiewicz leading a three-way match-up that included Lieberman and McMahon, 34-30-28 percent.
The poll noted that if Foley is the GOP nominee, Bysiewicz would lead Lieberman and Foley, 33-29-27 percent.
The survey of 700 registered voters in Connecticut, including 433 who are likely to vote in the Democratic primary election in August 2012, also found Bysiewicz defeating Kennedy and Murphy 32-26-26 percent, or Bysiewicz leading Murphy 46-37 percent in a one-on-one.
A Cold Forecast for Democrats in the Northern Plains
Out in North Dakota, the action is altogether different. While Republicans feel confident about Texas and Democrats aren't sweating a loss in Connecticut, North Dakota defies conventional wisdom. Though a conservative state, until this year it had two Democratic senators for 18 years and the state voted for Barack Obama in 2008.
But the North Dakota Senate seat turned over in November to popular former Gov. John Hoeven, as did the House seat formerly held by nine-termer Earl Pomeroy, who was defeated by state Rep. Rick Berg for the seat that hadn't been held by a Republican since 1978. In addition, only 13 of the state's 47-member Senate is Democratic.
"The Dakotas are long gone in terms of states that Democrats can expect to win," Republican strategist Brian Nick told The Associated Press.
But who will lay a stake is still undecided. Democrats reportedly are hurting to find an elected official with statewide recognition. The only one currently is school superintendent Wayne Sanstead.
Republicans, on the other hand, have several potential candidates, having swept the five statewide elections in November. Among some of the potential candidates named are Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk, who formed an exploratory committee to weigh a challenge against Conrad before he made his retirement announcement.
For Democrats, however, their hope in North Dakota may be internecine fighting among mainstream and Tea Party Republicans.
"Republican primaries cost them Senate seats last cycle, and there's no question it could happen again," Democratic spokesman Eric Schultz told The Associated Press. "It's far too early for Republicans to declare any victories."