My, how a cycle can change. In our very first Senate race rankings back in November of last year, we saw a potential Republican wave developing. Democrats held eight of the 10 seats most vulnerable to a party switch, and Republicans — who needed just four seats to claim a 51-seat majority — looked primed to win most of them.
But candidates and the campaigns they run matter. This year, Democrats are running much better campaigns, with much better candidates, in key states like Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. That's not to say Democrats will win everything — Rep. Rick Berg looks like he's built a lead in North Dakota, while former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson has turned around what looked like one of the year's worst-run campaigns — but the difference from a year ago is striking.
Now, just five of the 10 most vulnerable seats are in Democratic hands, equaling the number of Republican-held seats. Surveying the playing field, it appears Republicans could gain up to three seats under the best circumstances, while the best-case Democratic scenario gives them a two-seat net gain.
In this, the final installment of Hotline's monthly Senate race rankings, we examine the seats most likely to change partisan control in the general election on Nov. 6. 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 Nevada's Sen. Dean Heller.
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 North Dakota, we'd rather be in Berg's position than in former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp's place, for example.
The ultimate conclusions are subjective, of course, and we promise they endear us to neither side. (Our phones will start ringing off the hooks with loud complaints from both Democrats and Republicans the moment these rankings are published.) 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.
|MAINE (Open R, Sen. Olympia Snowe retiring) (Last month's rank: 2)
National Republicans thought splitting the Democratic vote between former Gov. Angus King, running as an independent, and Democratic state Sen. Cynthia Dill could give their nominee, Secretary of State Charlie Summers, a window of opportunity. That window closed earlier this month, when King decided to break his no-negative-campaigning pledge — a wise decision in this day and age. Now Democrats have to go to work getting him to break his no-caucusing-with-either-party pledge.
|NEBRASKA (Open D, Sen. Ben Nelson retiring) (Last month: 1)
Recent polling shows former Sen. Bob Kerrey pulling closer to Republican state Sen. Deb Fischer. Credit Kerrey ads that use a lawsuit Fischer filed against her neighbors in a land dispute — a big deal in Midwestern politics. But "pulling closer" still means the Democrat trails by a wide margin, and support for Fischer is over 50 percent in almost every survey. She's still the easy favorite. National Democrats have made no moves that indicate they see things differently.
|MASSACHUSETTS (R, Sen. Scott Brown) (Last month: 4)
A Boston Globe poll released earlier this week gives Republicans hope in Sen. Scott Brown's chances at winning a full term. But internal numbers have already led most in the GOP to conclude Democrat Elizabeth Warren is too far ahead to catch. Warren successfully nationalized the race, tying Brown to a national party that's deeply unpopular in the Bay State. That sank him like a stone. Side note: Credit Warren's campaign with an internal turnaround. If she wins, it will be proof that a campaign can change tactics in the midst of a race and still pull out a win.
|NORTH DAKOTA (Open D, Sen. Kent Conrad retiring) (Last month: 5)
Rep. Rick Berg has popularity problems. But just as Elizabeth Warren has nationalized the Massachusetts race to her advantage, Berg has done the same in North Dakota, where the "D" after former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp's name is a serious drag. Heitkamp is by far the better candidate, and her advertisements have been some of the best of the year. But the state's Republican electorate is starting to come home, and Berg has opened up a small — but probably sufficient — lead.
|INDIANA (Open R, Sen. Richard Lugar defeated in primary) (Last month: 8)
Rep. Joe Donnelly's hopes for winning a Senate seat were never really in his control. He needed state Treasurer Richard Mourdock to first beat Sen. Dick Lugar in the GOP primary and then prove to voters he was too conservative for the state. Mourdock obliged on both counts, and afterhis comments on rape at last week's debate, even his internal surveys show the race tied. Indiana still tilts red, but Mourdock doesn't have a lot of time to repair the damage he's caused his own campaign.
|MONTANA (D, Sen. Jon Tester) (Last month: 3)
This race has been tied from the start; there weren't many Montanans who didn't have an opinion of heavy hitters Tester and Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg. Tester allies are smart to be advertising on behalf of Libertarian candidate Dan Cox; Democrats have always counted on Cox taking a number of voters who would otherwise be backing Rehberg. That's because Tester can get to 47 or 48, but he probably can't get to 50. His success depends largely on Cox's success. Both sides are pursuing a bevy of new base voters — Native Americans for Tester, oil workers near the Bakken field for Rehberg.
|WISCONSIN (Open D, Sen. Herb Kohl retiring) (Last month: 6)
Tommy Thompson's campaign was starting to panic national Republicans. Their advertisements were weak, their candidate was virtually absent from the campaign trail, and Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin was gaining ground. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker stepped in, installed a much better campaign team and turned things around. Now, the race is close to a tossup. There are a few crossover voters on both sides — Obama-Thompson voters are older Democrats, probably in the northern part of the state, while Romney-Baldwin voters want change at all costs — but expect this race to track closely with the statewide presidential results.
|NEVADA (R, Sen. Dean Heller) (Last month: 7)
There was a time, not long ago, that Rep. Shelley Berkley was trying to create some space between herself and President Obama. Not anymore. There's probably no Democratic candidate who needs Obama to win more than Berkley, whose stump speech these days consists of a full-throated embrace of the president and not much else. GOP incumbent Dean Heller will benefit from a large number of Obama voters who cross over; Berkley needs Obama to win Nevada by as much as 7 or 8 percentage points if he's going to drag her over the finish line.
|VIRGINIA (Open D, Sen. Jim Webb retiring) (Last month: 8)
Throughout the month of September, Democrat Tim Kaine looked like he was starting to pull away from Republican George Allen as nonwhite voters who had already decided to back President Obama started tuning in to the Senate race. Republicans still see a path for Allen, though, especially if Romney wins Virginia. Allen's internal polls show him leading, even if some party strategists are a bit skeptical that the numbers are too rosy. But public polls, like a Washington Post survey last week showing Kaine up by 7 points, track much more closely with Democratic internals. We've always said Kaine will win bigger here than people expect.
|ARIZONA (Open R, Sen. Jon Kyl retiring) (Last month: 11)
This race has been more about the heretofore unknown challenger, Democrat Richard Carmona, than about Rep. Jeff Flake, who once looked set to waltz into the upper chamber virtually untouched. The latest scuffle is over a Carmona ad in which he touts nice things Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl said about him during his Surgeon General confirmation hearings. Needless to say, McCain and Kyl don't like the ads, but it's a powerful spot Carmona is using wisely. Flake has an edge in internal polls, but the race is fluid enough that a big surge in Hispanic turnout could put Carmona over the top.
|OHIO (D, Sen. Sherrod Brown) (Last month: 14)
Republicans think we're totally misreading this race, and that Treasurer Josh Mandel is running much closer to Brown than the public polls suggest. Their theory: The tens of millions spent in Ohio, both at the presidential level and the Senate level, have polarized the entire state, meaning there simply won't be that many crossover voters. We still believe Brown is the heavy favorite, thanks in part to the lengths he went to in defining Mandel early as an unacceptable alternative. Brown won't win by 20, but this race will be called relatively early.
|CONNECTICUT (Open I/D, Sen. Joe Lieberman retiring) (Last month: 12)
To be frank, we thought something else was coming here. Republican Linda McMahon surged to a lead in September, then faded as national Democrats raced to defend Rep. Chris Murphy. Murphy now has a sustained lead, and Obama's performance here will only help him. McMahon's money — she's spent nearly $100 million over two cycles running for Senate — won't be enough to overcome the state's Democratic lean.
|PENNSYLVANIA (D, Sen. Robert Casey) (Last month: 16)
Republican Tom Smith has spent a lot of his own money too, and it's bought him a surprisingly close contest. Democratic Sen. Robert Casey is still the heavy favorite — even Republicans we talk to don't think Smith can win in the end — but the fact that he's in a tighter-than-expected race should serve as a warning to every incumbent: Your reelection is never guaranteed. Casey is getting a reputation as someone who doesn't work his state unless he's in-cycle, and local reporters grumble that he's never on the trail even when he is seeking reelection. Something to watch if, as rumor has it, he really does have his eye on the governor's mansion.
|FLORIDA (D, Sen. Bill Nelson) (Last month: 12)
This race has been more about GOP Rep. Connie Mack than it has about incumbent Bill Nelson. It's rarely a good thing for a challenger to become the focus of so much attention (Exception: Carmona in Arizona). Nelson has been in the driver's seat from Day One, despite more than $20 million spent against him by outside groups.
|MISSOURI (D, Sen. Claire McCaskill) (Last month: 10)
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told us he thought he would be able to say his party hadn't nominated any Sharron Angle-like unelectable candidates this year, until Rep. Todd Akin was nominated. Republicans wrote this race off the moment Akin's "legitimate rape" comments went public. McCaskill should have been an easy opponent to knock off; now, she's safely ahead.
|MICHIGAN (D, Sen. Debbie Stabenow) (Last month: 17)
Republican former Rep. Pete Hoekstra just never got the traction he needed to make this race close.
|NEW MEXICO (Open D, Sen. Jeff Bingaman retiring) (Last month: 15)
Republicans recruited the right candidate in ex-Rep. Heather Wilson. But in a presidential year in a state that's trending more toward Democrats, Rep. Martin Heinrich has been in the driver's seat almost since the beginning.
|HAWAII (Open D, Sen. Daniel Akaka retiring) (Last month: 18)
Here's another good Republican recruit — former Gov. Linda Lingle — who just couldn't cut through in a state President Obama will win with 65 to 70 percent of the vote. Democratic Rep. Mazie Hirono will be the next senator from Hawaii.
|NEW JERSEY (D, Sen. Bob Menendez) (Last month: 19)
Sometimes, New Jersey polling hints the state could be won by a Republican candidate. That didn't happen this year; Menendez will outpace state Sen. Joe Kyrillos by a wide margin.
|WEST VIRGINIA (D, Sen. Joe Manchin) (Last month: --)
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell actually campaigned for Republican businessman John Raese, but we suspect that may have had as much to do with his feud with Sen. Joe Manchin over West Virginia University's decision to leave the Big East to join the Big 12. Voters in West Virginia are siding with the Mountineers; the Democratic incumbent is going to win.