Twenty-three Democratic Senate seats are up for election this year, including several seats in deep-red states. Just 10 Republican seats will be on the ballot in November. From the beginning of the cycle, Republicans, who need to pick up a net of just four seats to take control of the upper chamber, had a clear path to a majority.
But Rep. Todd Akin has thrown a monkey wrench into those plans. His comments that a woman can prevent pregnancy from "legitimate rape," which came just weeks after Akin won a tough primary for the right to face Sen. Claire McCaskill, sent Akin's poll numbers plummeting and prompted virtually every significant Republican leader to demand he leave the race. Polls taken just after the primary showed Akin easily leading McCaskill; now, every reputable survey conducted since his comments show the incumbent Democrat ahead.
Republicans saw McCaskill's seat as almost a guaranteed pickup. But Akin's flub, and his subsequent refusal to quit the race, has forced Republican strategists to begin plotting alternate paths to the 51 seats they need to elevate Sen. Mitch McConnell to majority leader.
The GOP now counts only one Democratic seat — Nebraska — as a sure bet. They see promising targets in Montana, where Sen. Jon Tester is running neck-and-neck with Rep. Denny Rehberg, and in North Dakota, where Democrat Heidi Heitkamp is in a dead heat with Republican Rep. Rick Berg. Republicans are also confident in former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson's chances; public polling shows Thompson leading Rep. Tammy Baldwin by a small margin.
Those four seats would be enough to win the majority, but for Sen. Olympia Snowe's retirement in Maine. Former Gov. Angus King, an independent, is likely to caucus with Democrats. That means the Republican path to the majority runs through Florida, Ohio, and Virginia, all states in which Democrats have an advantage. And that's assuming vulnerable Republican seats in states like Massachusetts, Nevada, and, to a lesser degree, Indiana and Arizona, don't fall to Democrats.
"I think we began the year looking like we were likely to have a small advantage, and at this point we have a tossup," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
Republicans are now looking for opportunities beyond the states that have captured party strategists' attention so far. The new map requires them to win in ordinarily Democratic territory. In an interview, McConnell pointed to three states where Republican candidates would ordinarily be long shots.
"I think we can add a couple of states to the possibilities," McConnell said. "I don't think I would have mentioned Connecticut. I may have mentioned Hawaii before, but clearly that's possible. I probably mentioned New Mexico before, and that's clearly possible. So I'd still say 50-50," McConnell said, giving his party even odds of capturing control.
Republican campaign strategists aren't as bullish on either Hawaii, where polls show Rep. Mazie Hirono leading former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle by double digits, or New Mexico; earlier this week, the National Republican Senatorial Committee canceled advertising they had purchased on behalf of former Rep. Heather Wilson, a sign that party strategists believe Democratic Rep. Martin Heinrich is too far ahead for Wilson to stage a comeback.
But Connecticut has roared onto the scene as a newly competitive race. A Quinnipiac University survey conducted last week showed former World Wrestling Entertainment executive Linda McMahon leading Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy. Republicans point out the poll came after Murphy ran a week's worth of negative advertising, an indication of McMahon's lead.
Democrats hinted the ordinarily blue state could cost them precious resources this year. "We will make sure that Chris has the resources he needs to win and that voters know that Linda McMahon is just out for herself," the DSCC's Matt Canter said.
The presidential contest will play a factor in key states, both sides agree. The three Democratic-leaning states McConnell mentioned will all give President Obama huge margins in November. Hawaii, his home state, gave Obama a whopping 72 percent of the vote; Obama won 61 percent in Connecticut. In an era when fewer voters are splitting their ballots between presidential and Senate contests, that makes Republicans' jobs more difficult.
On the other side of that coin, Obama will be a drag on some of his incumbents. Mitt Romney will win electoral votes in North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, and Missouri, giving a boost to candidates farther down the ballot. But that's no guarantee for either side.
"Every presidential election year, both sides win races you would argue they shouldn't win based upon what happens at the top of the ticket. So I don't think it's iron-clad that you can't win if the presidential candidate of your party doesn't carry the state. Helpful, but not totally determinative," McConnell said.
NRSC executive director Rob Jesmer said control of the Senate will be evident early on election night. Polls close relatively early in the evening in Virginia and Massachusetts. If either party runs away with both states, the other side's path to a majority will virtually shut down.
But there's no doubt Akin's implosion has made Republicans' path to the majority more difficult. His comments were an uncomfortable reminder of the 2010 cycle, when Republican primaries in several states produced extreme nominees with little hope of winning a general election. Instead of taking advantage of the GOP wave that year, those unelectable nominees left several states on the table.
"I thought I was going to be able to say this cycle we hadn't nominated a single unelectable candidate," McConnell said. "We'll see whether I can still say that. That would have been the case and may well still be the case. You cannot say that of the last cycle."