Washington (CNN) - The number two man at the National Republican Senatorial Committee says he thinks several Democratic senators facing re-elections in 2012 are in "serious trouble."
But NRSC Executive Director Rob Jesmer also acknowledges that it's "very difficult to beat incumbents and I think most of the people we are running against are pretty smart and formidable and I don't think anything is going to be easy."
Of the 33 Senate seats up in 2012, 23 are held by the Democrats and the two independent senators who caucus with the Democrats. Only ten GOP held Senate seats are up for grabs.
Of those ten Republicans, two of them getting ready for re-election bids, Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Richard Lugar of Indiana, could face challenges from within their own party. Jesmer indicates that primary challenges for sitting senators are becoming the new normal, saying, "We live in a new world."
The Republicans made a net gain of seven Senate seats this year, and when the 112th Congress kicks off next week, the Democrats will have a smaller 53-47 majority in the chamber. Jesmer says the NRSC's obvious goal in 2012 is to capture the majority. He spoke with CNN last week about the challenges ahead:
CNN: You've got a lot of prospects for pickups in 2012. Which states do you think are the NRSC's best prospects for defeating Democratic incumbents up for re-election in two years?
Jesmer: "I have two different answers. One, I think it's clear that Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska is in serious trouble and kind of in a league of his own. But I think several others are serious trouble. But the flip side to that is that it is very difficult to beat incumbents and I think most of the people we are running against are pretty smart and formidable and I don't think anything is going to be easy. I think we have some fertile ground in Montana, Virginia, Nebraska, Florida, and North Dakota, where I think Sen. Kent Conrad is in a lot of trouble. There are other states where depending on if one candidate runs, there could be some other good challenges."
CNN: Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts is up for re-election in 2012, and Democrats will be gunning to knock him out of office. How concerned is the NRSC over Brown's re-election and what is the committee doing in advance to assist the freshman senator?
Jesmer: "I would not say we are concerned. We are doing what we can do to help Sen. Brown. He won under very long odds and circumstances a year ago. The best thing Sen. Brown can do is be a good senator and the reality is he's been a great senator for Massachusetts. He's the most popular elected official in the state right now. Too often people on both sides, Republicans and Democrats, see a state and they say 'that state's a Democratic state or a Republican state. We're going to beat that guy for sure.' But the reality is there has to be a rationale for someone's candidacy, a rationale to beat Sen. Brown and I have yet to see one. In my estimation he votes the way the state wants him to. He's got a great constituent service operation and I think at the end of the day he's going to be fine, as long as he runs a good campaign."
CNN: How concerned are you to primary challenges to Republican incumbents up for re-election in 2012. Two that come to mind right off the bat are Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah
Jesmer: "Generally speaking, we live in a new world and Sen. Cornyn's been very clear on this: People need to be prepared for a primary challenge. I think both Senators Lugar and Hatch are aware of the world we live in and are working hard to state their case to Republican primary voters and general election voters."
CNN: Does the NRSC try to clear the field of divisive primaries, as could happen in Missouri, or Connecticut, where former Rep. Rob Simmons, who made a bid for the GOP Senate nomination this year, is already criticizing your committee in advance of a possible run again in 2012. How active does the NRSC get in trying to keep the peace on the Republican side?
Jesmer: I think it's up to individual candidates to make their case to primary voters and primary voters will decide their nominees. But we'll still be active on recruitment, like we always are, but I don't think it will be any different that it was last time. Primary voters will make up their minds and we'll support the nominee.
CNN: To prevent the criticism and pushback against the NRSC that we saw to a degree in this past cycle, does the committee try to reach out more to Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, or to Tea Party organizations. Do you do anything different this next time to try and change the storyline from 2010?
Jesmer: "I'm not sure the storyline from 2010 was totally accurate. But to get to your point, we clearly need to communication with all the different constituencies of our party and we will continue to do that. But I think at the end of the day it's incumbent upon the candidate to reach out to people and to state their case. The bottom line is all that matters is when you are running for nomination for the United States Senate is what your primary voters think. So if people are working hard and running good campaigns, they're going to be fine and they're going to be the nominee. But that was generally the case last time and I expect it to continue it that way.
CNN: Earlier this month the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee highlighted their fundraising numbers, pointing out that they out raised the NRSC by around $15 million during the 2010 cycle, and indicated that was one factor in their keeping the chamber in party hands. What do you do different in the 2012 cycle?
Jesmer: "I found that kind of amusing frankly. The DSCC outraised us by $70 million in the previous cycle. So we closed the gap from $70 million to $15 million and I think the question is 'are they going to do anything different to get back their financial dominance which they clearly didn't have.' Normally the majority party has a substantial fundraising advantage and we were able to severely cut into that. I'm happy and Sen. Cornyn's happy that his finance staff is staying in place and we hope to continue to narrow the gap between the two committees. I don't think generally speaking, be it Republican or Democrat, that you'd be hard pressed to find someone who wasn't elected this cycle because of a lack of money. That's our goal next time: Don't make it about money, make it about having good candidates and supporting them. The second part of this is if the DSCC's happy with losing seven Senate seats, then so be it. In the beginning of the 2010 cycle the map was very difficult for us. We had the most retirements in 50 years. Sen. Cornyn is very proud of what the NRSC did and we expect to continue our success."
CNN: When it comes to fundraising, are you worried that the upcoming GOP presidential nomination battle will suck up a lot of oxygen and make it tougher to fundraise for down ballot races, or will it have the opposite effect and excite the base and the donors? Is this a problem just for the Republicans, since as of now it doesn't appear there will be a serious Democratic primary challenge to President Obama.
Jesmer: "President Obama's probably going to raise a billion dollars. That's cleary going to impact Democratic fundraising. But the flip side to that is that generally speaking in presidential election cycles all the committees raise more money, there's just more donor enthusiasm. It will be challenging, and I enjoy challenges, but overall people understand the importance of getting the Senate majority and I think our fundraising will be fine. the
CNN: You've got a new opponent, or rival, in Guy Cecil, who's taking over as executive director at the DSCC. What do you make of him?
Jesmer: "I know him by reputation. I've never met him. But he has a very good reputation. I thought Sen. Bennet (Cecil ran Bennet's 2010 campaign) and Sen. Murray (who's taking over as DSCC chairwoman) both ran best campaigns on the Democratic side this cycle. I thought the DSCC was very formidable. I think J.B. (outgoing DSCC executive director J.B. Poersch) is a very smart guy. And I expect them to be equally formidable this cycle."
CNN: What are you doing now to relax before you gear up for the next cycle?
Jesmer: "I'm going to hang out with my wife and kids. I'm also going to Texas to go hunting with Sen. Cornyn. I'm not a big hunter but I'm going hunting with him. I've done it three years in a row. I'm almost rested and by January 3rd I'll be ready get going."
Follow Paul Steinhauser on Twitter: @PsteinhauserCNN