When the cycle began, Republicans believed the fact Democrats that had to defend 23 seats - including in red states like Nebraska and North Dakota -- while running alongside a struggling incumbent president would doom them to the minority. The starkly different prediction is a reflection of key incumbent retirements, missteps by GOP challengers, a strong recruitment class of Democratic candidates and -- above all -- a political climate that suddenly seems far less favorable to the party as President Obama opens a sizable lead on Mitt Romney.
"Impossible not to think things are trending down," said one GOP insider.
Added another, "What once looked like a great takeover chance now appears to be a fair chance."
Since insiders were last asked about Senate control, several marquee races have changed. In Maine, GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe's retirement has made independent candidate Angus King the favorite. In Missouri, GOP Rep. Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" fiasco might be the only thing that saves highly vulnerable Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.
The GOP is also struggling in two red states it once seemed certain to win: Former Democratic North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp has run a much stronger race than expected, and Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly remains a threat to win his campaign in Indiana. They're facing Rep. Rick Berg and Indiana Teasurer Richard Mourdoch, respectively.
"The candidate field on the GOP side leaves much to be desired," said one Republican insider.
Democrats are watching their fortunes improve in blue states where they think they have an opportunity for pick-ups. Buoyed by Obama's popularity in the race, Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren is running neck-and-neck with GOP Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts. They also could win in Nevada, where Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley takes on GOP Sen. Dean Heller.
Other states, like Florida and Ohio, have seen Democratic incumbents Bill Nelson and Sherrod Brown pull away from their foes. Republicans remain hopeful they could pull off an upset in Connecticut, with second-try candidate Linda McMahon running a strong race, and races remain close in Wisconsin and Virginia.
"Tougher races where Republicans didn't anticipate them though could be offset by a rare win in Connecticut," a GOP insider said. Even Democrats acknowledge they once expected to lose the Senate.
"This should've been a slam dunk, but Dems have some surprisingly strong candidates, and Republicans are just fumbling race after race," said a Democratic insider.
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