Welcome to the spring doldrums. The Senate primary fields are largely set, most of the top races have clear front-runners in both parties, and everyone's focusing on raising money and winning the base. But we're still learning a lot about a landscape that looks promising—but tough—for both sides.
Republicans must net at least five seats to win the majority outright, assuming former Maine Gov. Angus King caucuses with Democrats. They have lots of targets, putting Democrats on defense in both red states and blue states, but winning the majority will mean almost running the table.
In this, the sixth installment of Hotline's monthly Senate rankings, we examine the seats most likely to change partisan control in this year's 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 (but not by much), 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 North Dakota, we'd rather be in the position of Rep. Rick Berg than in that of former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp's, 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.
|NEBRASKA (Open D, Sen. Ben Nelson retiring) (Last month's rank: 1)
After a rocky start, former Sen. Bob Kerrey has started raising money at an impressive clip while the Republicans squabble. But Attorney General Jon Bruning has established himself as the clear front-runner in the primary, and both public and private polling shows any of the Republicans dispatching Kerrey. If any seat will be "put away," to use the D.C. paralance, it will be Nebraska.
|MAINE (Open R, Sen. Olympia Snowe retiring) (Last month: 3)
Democrats haven't decided on a candidate yet. If you believe that, you probably also believe the Republicans who insist they really don't want to be Mitt Romney's vice presidential nominee. Independent former Gov. Angus King is the clear favorite in the race, and a slip of the tongue by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., made clear that Democrats are confident that King will be on their side. The Republican bench in Maine is thin, and it's showing.
|NORTH DAKOTA (Open D, Sen. Kent Conrad is retiring) (Last month: 2)
This race drops a spot both because Maine looks more like a flip and because internal Democratic polling shows Heidi Heitkamp outpacing Republican Rep. Rick Berg. Berg's camp has polled, according to his Federal Election Commission reports, but he's not releasing those numbers. The presidential headwinds make Heitkamp's job very difficult, but even some Republicans acknowledge that the race is closer than most observers believe.
|MISSOURI (D, Sen. Claire McCaskill) (Last month: 4)
Republicans believe any of the three contenders vying for their nomination can beat McCaskill, but Sarah Steelman comes up more often in conversation than GOP Rep. Todd Akin or businessman John Brunner. McCaskill's best hope is for a bitterly divided primary, but outside groups are going to go to work on her in the meantime. She raises good money, and she'll need every penny in what looks like an uphill battle to keep her seat. (Check out our baseline analysis of the race here)
|MONTANA (D, Sen. Jon Tester) (Last month: 5)
Our baseline analysis of this race suggests that Tester is hugely vulnerable, given the extent to which white working-class voters have trended away from Democrats. Tester will need tons of crossover votes—at least one of every six Republicans—to beat Republucan Rep. Denny Rehberg. Then again, there's plenty of opposition research on Rehberg, and Tester's personal popularity remains high. Montana is a cheap state, which means voters won't see much besides negative ads on television beginning this August.
|MASSACHUSETTS (R, Sen. Scott Brown) (Last month: 6)
Repeat after us: This race is tied. Polling on both sides shows much less movement than public polling suggests. The more important number you'll see is Elizabeth Warren's favorable rating. If Bay Staters don't hate her in six months, she will win the race. Brown has to do his best to drive up her negatives (Remember, he doesn't have support from outside groups after taking a pledge to avoid that spending), which can be a risk for a politician whose own fate hangs on his positive image.
|WISCONSIN (Open D, Sen. Herb Kohl retiring) (Last month: 7)
Wisconsin's electorate is not as conservative as the 2010 elections suggest. In fact, the state has a long history of electing progressive heroes like Robert La Follette, William Proxmire, and Russ Feingold—two of whom lost to much more conservative candidates. Is Wisconsin in the mood for a progressive like Rep. Tammy Baldwin, or a conservative like the eventual winner of the GOP primary? Speaking of which, could ex-Rep. Mark Neumann beat former Gov. Tommy Thompson in the primary? It's more than a possibility, according to those watching the race closely: Thompson doesn't have the conservative credentials Neumann does.
|NEVADA (R, Sen. Dean Heller) (Last month: 8)
The winner in the showdown between Heller and Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley will be the candidate who makes the fewest mistakes. Right now, Republicans believe they're ahead on that score, after several articles questioned Berkley's ethics record. Berkley will benefit from President Obama's investment in a ground operation, but the state has a history of crossover voting—see Harry Reid, who won by 5 points, and Rory Reid, who lost by 12, while sharing a ballot in 2010. (Check out our baseline analysis of the race here)
|NEW MEXICO (Open D, Sen. Jeff Bingaman retiring) (Last month: 10)
Speaking of needing to run a perfect race, that's what former GOP Rep. Heather Wilson has to do. Wilson has to win over Hispanic voters, who make up a huge percentage of the state's electorate, and moderates in her old Albuquerque district, no easy feat when Democratic rival Rep. Martin Heinrich represents the same area. Heinrich faces a primary from state Auditor Hector Balderas, but he's the heavy favorite. Still, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sees an opportunity here—they've already reserved millions in television time for the Fall.
|VIRGINIA (Open D, Sen. Jim Webb retiring) (Last month: 9)
When was the last time George Allen had a really good day? It's been a while—fundraising numbers are going Tim Kaine's way, polling shows the race basically even, and Republicans are only now investing in the infrastructure Democrats have been building for months. The race is close to a toss-up, but it's the most competitive race least likely to change party hands. Kaine is likely to benefit from a few points of crossover voting, and the fact that Obama is so heavily targeting the state only augments Kaine's own standing. (Check out our baseline analysis of the race here)
|OHIO (D, Sen. Sherrod Brown) (Last month: 12)
The first part of this paragraph could go in either our Ohio or Florida entry: A relatively popular Democratic senator is seeking reelection in a state that went hard right in 2010. The second part is the reason we rank Brown as slightly more vulnerable than Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson: Brown actually has a challenger, in state Treasurer Josh Mandel, who's raising real money. Brown has gone negative on Mandel, too, suggesting the race is either close in internal surveys or that Brown sees the chance to knock out his rival early. Still, Ohio marks the first race we wouldn't put in the "tossup" category.
|FLORIDA (D, Sen. Bill Nelson) (Last month: 11)
How do you know when a primary field doesn't have an A-level contender? When a senior Republican—in this case, state CFO Jeff Atwater—very publicly flirts with entering the race. Even though he said no, Atwater's late interest spoke volumes about the GOP primary field. At the moment, that field is Nelson's best asset. When Republicans choose a nominee, the $9.5 million he has in the bank will become his best asset.
|MICHIGAN (D, Sen. Debbie Stabenow) (Last month: 13)
Rep. Pete Hoekstra's advertisement featuring a Chinese-American actress succeeded in offending just about everyone—including the actress. It didn't do the one thing Hoekstra hoped it would: goose his fundraising. Even though Stabenow doesn't have great poll numbers, she's well-liked, and in a Democratic-leaning state in a presidential year, she's likely to be safe for another term.
|ARIZONA (Open R, Sen. Jon Kyl retiring) (Last month: 15)
Rep. Jeff Flake faces a serious Republican primary fight in the next few months, but he's still the favorite through November. Democrats have a point when they say the state's population is changing in their favor. But the electorate has not kept up with the population, and Democrats would have to register tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of voters by November to make the race truly competitive. That's not impossible—but it's not likely, either. (Check out our baseline analysis of the race here)
|INDIANA (R, Sen. Richard Lugar) (Last month: 16)
If Sen. Richard Lugar is the Republican nominee, he will not lose in November. But Lugar's fate in the primary election may already be sealed. Democrats believe Treasurer Richard Mourdock's nomination would give Rep. Joe Donnelly a chance to put the seat in play, and they're right—insofar as the seat would be more competitive than it is today. But it's still a red state in a presidential year, which means Mourdock would start the general election as the favorite.
|HAWAII (Open D, Sen. Dan Akaka retiring) (Last month: 14)
The Democratic establishment, both at home and on the Mainland, are firmly behind Rep. Mazie Hirono in her primary fight. And no Republican would have to win over more crossover voters than former Gov. Linda Lingle; with Obama likely to win the state by up to 40 points, Lingle would have to get about two in five Obama voters on her side. Even with the money she's generating, that's too steep a climb.
|CONNECTICUT (Open ID, Sen. Joe Lieberman retiring) (Last month: 17)
With two weeks to go before the state Democratic convention, major elements of the party establishment are coalescing behind Rep. Chris Murphy. Republicans are torn between the moderate former Rep. Chris Shays, who might actually be electable statewide, and the wealthy Linda McMahon, who can fund the entire party's operations with the single stroke of a pen. Either way, the Republican winner will have to beat Murphy in a state where Obama will stroll to an easy win. If McMahon couldn't win in 2010, when she lost by 12 points, it's hard to see how either Republican would win this year.
|PENNSYLVANIA (D, Sen. Bob Casey) (Last month: 18)
The good news for Republicans is that they have a nominee. The bad news is, they now have to run against Sen. Bob Casey, a popular member in a state that still favors blue collar Democrats. This one isn't likely to move to the front of the NRSC's priority list any time soon.
|NEW JERSEY (D, Sen. Bob Menendez) (Last month: 20)
Republican state Sen. Joe Kyrillos raised good money, thanks in part to Gov. Chris Christie's help. But Sen. Bob Menendez still has a firm grip on the state. Barring a major ethics investigation—not unheard of in the Garden State—Republicans won't be tempted to play here this year.
|WEST VIRGINIA (D, Sen. Joe Manchin) (Last month: 19)
Sen. Joe Manchin may have gotten himself in hot water in D.C. by professing indecision on his presidential vote, but that plays well back home—he got to remind his constituents he's a West Virginia Democrat, first and foremost, in a weekend op-ed. As long as voters don't think he's gone Washington, Republican businessman John Raese will struggle to gain traction.