President Obama wasn't the only Democrat to get a bounce out of his party's convention last month. Polls, both public and private, are showing several Democrats in key states like Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Virginia performing better now than they did before Charlotte. Will the bounce last these next 35 days, or will it fade back to virtual ties all around? Answer that question and you'll know who will control the Senate in the 113th Congress.
One thing's for sure: Democrats are polling better now than they have all year long.
In this, the tenth installment of Hotline's monthly Senate rankings, we examine the seats most likely to change partisan control after the November elections. That is, we see Sen. Ben Nelson's seat in Nebraska as more likely to wind up in Republican hands than Sen. Kent Conrad's seat in North Dakota, and Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts more likely to lose to a Democrat than Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada.
Our complex methodology includes a delicate balance of poll numbers, both public and private; fundraising performance; message resonance; buzz on the trail; and, the key ingredient, our gut feelings. From those five factors, we answer a fundamental question: Which candidate would we rather be? In Nebraska, we'd rather be state Sen. Deb Fischer than former Sen. Bob Kerrey, for example.
The ultimate conclusions are subjective, of course. But they represent months of close scrutiny of each race and our best conclusions as to where the Senate is headed in the 113th Congress. (Check out our September rankings here).
|NEBRASKA (Open D, Sen. Ben Nelson retiring) (Last month's rank: 1)
Nebraska isn't the same state that once elected Bob Kerrey. Even given the chance to debate state Sen. Deb Fischer, the best news for Kerrey lately has been a poll showing him trailing by only 10.
|MAINE (Open R, Sen. Olympia Snowe retiring) (Last month: 2)
Former Gov. Angus King's polling advantage is sagging in the face of attack ads over his involvement in a wind energy business. But national Democrats are riding to his rescue -- albeit in a slightly different way than in other states. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is running ads trying to take Secretary of State Charlie Summers down a peg or two. King is still the favorite, but Summers probably only needs to hit 42 to 45 percent to win. Republicans have had some success bringing Democrat Cynthia Dill's poll numbers up.
|MONTANA (D, Sen. Jon Tester) (Last month: 3)
Rep. Denny Rehberg is spending October tying Tester to President Obama through a series of advertising that will gauge how effective Tester's independent brand is. But this race looks likely to be decided by both sides' efforts to influence the makeup of the electorate: Democrats are registering thousands of new voters on Native American reservations around the state. Republicans are registering their own new voters out east, where the booming Bakken oil field is bringing new workers to the state.
|MASSACHUSETTS (R, Sen. Scott Brown) (Last month: 6)
Democrats have always argued that undecided voters in Massachusetts are most likely to tilt toward Elizabeth Warren for the simple reason that they overwhelmingly back President Obama. Over the last three weeks, some of those voters have indeed broken to the challenger. Warren now leads most public polling, and with Obama looking likely to top 60 percent in Mitt Romney's home state, Brown's path to a full term looks increasingly tenuous. Brown needs this race to be about Warren, so expect the character attacks to continue all month.
|NORTH DAKOTA (Open D, Sen. Kent Conrad retiring) (Last month: 4)
Poll after Democratic internal poll shows former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp leading Rep. Rick Berg. The silence from the Republican side is deafening. Though the national atmospherics should favor Berg in this very red state, Heitkamp's retail skills and her positive favorable rating -- juxtaposed against Berg's net-unfavorable rating -- are putting her ahead, albeit by small margins. Expect another nail-biter.
|WISCONSIN (Open D, Sen. Herb Kohl retiring) (Last month: 5)
A month ago, Rep. Tammy Baldwin looked like the blue-state Democrat least likely to benefit from President Obama's coattails. But recent polling suggests a major shift in the race, and Baldwin now leads former Gov. Tommy Thompson in most public polling. (Last month, we said we were eagerly awaiting polls from Marquette, Quinnipiac, and Marist. Marquette and Marist showed Baldwin up, and Quinnipiac showed a tie.) Democrats have hammered Thompson over his post-gubernatorial career in Washington, and that looks like it's having an impact.
|NEVADA (R, Sen. Dean Heller) (Last month: 7)
Nevada is once again proving one of the more difficult states for pollsters to understand. The rapidly shifting electorate means few on either side have a really good handle on the composition of the electorate, especially Hispanic turnout. Don't underestimate the power of the Culinary Workers Union, which had sat out the election until late last month. Their turnout operation gives Rep. Shelley Berkley a good chance to run up the score in Las Vegas. Will it be enough to overcome Heller's strength in the rest of the state? Heller is one of the few Republicans likely to run ahead of Romney.
|INDIANA (Open R, Sen. Richard Lugar defeated in primary) (Last month: 10)
National Democrats are spending a surprising amount on behalf of Rep. Joe Donnelly, and recent polling shows a neck-and-neck race. Republican Richard Mourdock has moderated his language a bit in a bid to expand his appeal, but his campaign team is causing concern among some Hoosier Republicans. Donnelly is outworking Mourdock, but the state's red hue gives Republicans the chance to turn that around.
|VIRGINIA (Open D, Sen. Jim Webb retiring) (Last month: 8)
Last month, we said former Gov. Tim Kaine had room to grow, especially among nonwhite voters who already back President Obama. Over the last two weeks, those voters have started to come home, and Kaine appears to have opened a real lead over former Sen. George Allen. We've said all along this race will be a battle between the Old Dominion and the New Dominion. Right now, the newer side has the edge.
|MISSOURI (D, Sen. Claire McCaskill) (Last month: 9)
Rep. Todd Akin is doing his best to disqualify himself at every turn. And yet national Republicans still believe he could win the state. Their incentive to reenter the race on Akin's behalf, even after his damaging flubs, will only grow as the Republican path to 51 Senate seats looks more precarious. Missouri is trending away from Democrats, so in spite of the ample ammunition McCaskill has at her disposal, Akin still has a shot.
|ARIZONA (Open R, Sen. Jon Kyl retiring) (Last month: 14)
Democratic polls show former Surgeon General Richard Carmona closing the gap with Republican Rep. Jeff Flake. We still think Flake is the favorite, but Carmona's positive advertising is getting attention from independents. The two sides are going negative on each other, which suggests Republicans see a contest that's closer than they would like as well.
|CONNECTICUT (Open I/D, Sen. Joe Lieberman retiring) (Last month: 11)
Has Linda McMahon's rise been arrested by some timely Democratic spending? Polls showing the Republican nominee gaining scared Democrats into dropping big bucks on hard-hitting ads. While Rep. Chris Murphy looks like he's in better shape today than he was last month, at the very least McMahon has helped force Democrats into the unenviable position of defending what should be a very blue state.
|FLORIDA (D, Sen. Bill Nelson) (Last month: 12)
Nelson is never going to be popular statewide, but he's run a clinic on how to define an opponent. Expect him to run a few points ahead of Obama in the Sunshine State. Polls are trending against Rep. Connie Mack after a few weeks in which the GOP had hoped he might make this a close race.
|OHIO (D, Sen. Sherrod Brown) (Last month: 13)
Brown has somehow withstood more than $18 million in negative advertising from outside groups like Crossroads and the Chamber, and he still leads Republican Josh Mandel by a wide margin. Brown made the conscious decision to define his opponent early, and that decision paid off.
|NEW MEXICO (Open D, Sen. Jeff Bingaman retiring) (Last month: 15)
Rep. Martin Heinrich has a solid lead here. Former Rep. Heather Wilson has touted internal polls that show her down by only a small margin, rather than the wide spread in public surveys. Republicans have cancelled their ad buys here.
|PENNSYLVANIA (D, Sen. Robert Casey) (Last month: 19)
Two polls recently suggested businessman Tom Smith has cut into Casey's lead by a serious margin. We don't think Casey will end up running behind Obama, given Casey's appeal to traditionally Democratic but culturally conservative voters in Coal Country, though. Casey is still a safe bet for reelection.
|MICHIGAN (D, Sen. Debbie Stabenow) (Last month: 16)
Former Rep. Pete Hoekstra just hasn't gotten the traction he would need to make this a real race. Stabenow is in cruise control toward a third term.
|HAWAII (Open D, Sen. Daniel Akaka retiring) (Last month: 17)
Rep. Mazie Hirono's best friend is her state's native son, President Obama. Former Gov. Linda Lingle is the right candidate running in the wrong state.
|NEW JERSEY (D, Sen. Bob Menendez) (Last month: 18)
Menendez's approval ratings are still low, but in this traditionally Democratic state, he'll still win another term.
|WASHINGTON (D, Sen. Maria Cantwell) (Last month: 20)
This race makes the list because Republicans have at least elected a senator in Washington in recent memory (1994, to be precise). West Virginia hasn't elected a Republican senator since Chapman Revercomb in a special election in 1956.
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