This story was updated at 1:50 p.m.
It was the best of months, it was the worst of months. That's what it must feel like to work at the Democratic and Republican Senate campaign committees these days. For every cloud that rolled in, another silver lining seemed to emerge: Rep. Todd Akin shot himself in the foot, great news for Democrats and terrible for Republicans. And former Gov. Tommy Thompson won the Wisconsin primary, great news for Republicans and bad for Democrats.
And we haven't even hit September yet.
In this, the eighth 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 Scott Brown 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.
|NEBRASKA (Open D, Sen. Ben Nelson retiring) (Last month's rank: 1)
Nothing has changed in this race of late. State Sen. Deb Fischer remains the overwhelming favorite to take Sen. Ben Nelson's seat.
|MAINE (Open R, Sen. Olympia Snowe is retiring) (Last month: 2)
It may sound counterintuitive, but Republican Charlie Summers really needs Democrat Cynthia Dill to do well in Maine. That's because every vote for Dill is a vote that doesn't go to independent candidate Angus King. Summers's floor is higher than Dill's, because King is getting most of the Democratic vote. But King is still the overwhelming favorite.
|NORTH DAKOTA (Open D, Sen. Kent Conrad retiring) (Last month: 4)
North Dakota is a state where elections are traditionally about local issues. But not this year. Democrat Heidi Heitkamp is using the farm bill and Paul Ryan's budget to slam Rep. Rick Berg, while Berg is trying to tie Heitkamp to President Obama. Heitkamp has impressed national Democrats, and Berg has some Republicans worried that they could lose a golden opportunity. We bet Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) is watching closely.
|MONTANA (D, Sen. Jon Tester) (Last month: 6)
Congratulations, Sen. Jon Tester: With Rep. Todd Akin doing his best to re-elect Claire McCaskill, you're now the most vulnerable Democrat running for re-election. Both sides see Tester and Rep. Denny Rehberg running neck and neck. Tester has his populist image working for him, while Rehberg has national winds at his back (Outside groups are slamming Tester for his ObamaCare vote). Tester's 2006 race came down to an election-night squeaker, and this year will too.
|WISCONSIN (Open D, Sen. Herb Kohl retiring) (Last month: 7)
There's an intriguing national narrative building that Republicans have squandered opportunities to choose the best possible candidate in primaries. Wisconsin stands in contrast to that: Former Gov. Tommy Thompson has a history of attracting Democratic and independent voters. Rep. Tammy Baldwin's already-tough race just got a lot harder. She needs President Obama to win by a big margin, because she'll probably run a few points behind him. Her push to get Thompson to release his taxes is an effort to set up an attack on Thompson's post-governor career as a D.C. insider-slash-lobbyist.
|MASSACHUSETTS (R, Sen. Scott Brown) (Last month: 5)
In a year marked by negative ads, we've been surprised by the lack of negativity we've seen from Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown. Given the anti-super PAC pledge (which is actually working), Warren won't have outside help to bring Brown's approval ratings lower; she'll have to do it herself. Brown has to make Warren the unacceptable alternative. Sure, there have been negative ads so far, but expect the tone to get really ugly after Labor Day.
|MISSOURI (D, Sen. Claire McCaskill) (Last month: 3)
Oh, so this is why McCaskill wanted to face Rep. Todd Akin. McCaskill is in such bad shape that even Akin's implosion doesn't guarantee her another term, but it sure makes her path to reelection a lot more plausible. Expect Republicans to continue trying to push Akin out of the race. Several Republicans — John Brunner, Sarah Steelman and possibly Rep. Jo Ann Emerson — stand ready to jump in if Akin bails. But this is the best the McCaskill team has felt all year.
|NEVADA (R, Sen. Dean Heller) (Last month: 8)
Heller has led every public poll released this year, save a single survey conducted for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The ethics investigation into Rep. Shelley Berkley hasn't tanked her numbers, but she's very clearly behind. Berkley needs a big turnout from Hispanics in Las Vegas, who are the focus of serious Democratic GOTV efforts. But right now, Heller is in the more enviable position.
|VIRGINIA (Open D, Sen. Jim Webb retiring) (Last month: 9)
Why do people bother to poll this race? It was a statistical tie in January. It's a statistical tie now. It will be a statistical tie in late October. The fundamental question is, are Tim Kaine and George Allen running in the Old Dominion or the New Dominion? Allen hopes the electorate looks like the one that elected him in 2000, while Kaine is banking on an influx of newer voters in Northern Virginia. The thumb is on the scale for Kaine, but barely.
|FLORIDA (D, Sen. Bill Nelson) (Last month: 11)
Todd Akin's loss is Rep. Connie Mack's gain. With Crossroads and the National Republican Senatorial Committee leaving Missouri and polls showing Mack running surprisingly close to Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida is looking like an appealing alternative. Nelson has gone hard negative on Mack, suggesting he sees reason for concern too. Nelson still has a big cash edge, but Republicans are getting more bullish on Mack.
|OHIO (D, Sen. Sherrod Brown) (Last month: 12)
The $11.6 million in television ads hitting Brown is a bigger onslaught than any other candidate not running for president has faced. Polling shows Brown still ahead of Treasurer Josh Mandel, but internal numbers are starting to move. Watch the polling in September to see if voters tuning in after summer vacation are moving. But this is a rare example of a state in which a liberal is outperforming the president.
|NEW MEXICO (Open D, Sen. Jeff Bingaman retiring) (Last month: 10)
Former Rep. Heather Wilson's campaign is all about putting distance between herself and the top of the national ticket. She hasn't achieved that yet: Rep. Martin Heinrich leads all public polling. Outside groups are going to try to change that, but it will be a tall task in a state where demographics are trending toward Democrats at such a rapid clip.
|INDIANA (Open R, Sen. Richard Lugar defeated in primary) (Last month: 14)
Here's a race where candidates matter. Treasurer Richard Mourdock's harsh primary rhetoric isn't serving him well in the general, giving Rep. Joe Donnelly a chance to pull the upset. But because Donnelly has a small bank account, and because there are so many places where Democrats need to spend money, Republican outside groups have the chance to save Mourdock.
|ARIZONA (Open R, Sen. Jon Kyl retiring) (Last month: 13)
The Republican primary isn't turning out to be as ugly as Democrats hoped. And while Richard Carmona is proving an adept fundraiser, the state isn't moving toward Democrats at the rate they may have hoped. Rep. Jeff Flake is still the favorite.
|CONNECTICUT (Open I/D, Sen. Joe Lieberman is retiring) (Last month: 15)
Linda McMahon is getting a bit of a post-primary bounce, but Rep. Chris Murphy still has a solid advantage in such a blue state. One thing for Murphy to worry about is McMahon's spending in the super-pricey New York media market. Murphy won't be able to compete there, which means he'll have to rely on Obama's coattails. That's not so bad in a state where Obama will approach 60 percent.
|MICHIGAN (D, Sen. Debbie Stabenow) (Last month: 16)
Stabenow's approval ratings have always lagged, and the race will be closer than conventional wisdom suggests. But sometimes a seven-point lead can appear closer than it really is. Expect Stabenow to win by a bigger margin than the polling suggests. Few Republicans are bullish on ex-Rep. Pete Hoekstra.
|HAWAII (Open D, Sen. Dan Akaka retiring) (Last month: 17)
Linda Lingle has her own cable channel. Rep. Mazie Hirono has a 20-point lead. Republicans are acting accordingly. A once-promising target is all but off the table.
|NEW JERSEY (D, Sen. Bob Menendez) (Last month: 19)
Menendez will never be popular, but New Jersey will never be a red state in a presidential year. Democrats will keep their winning streak alive here.
|PENNSYLVANIA (D, Sen. Bob Casey) (Last month: 18)
Casey is cruising toward a second term. The more votes he gets in eastern Pennsylvania, the better it is for President Obama.
|WEST VIRGINIA (D, Sen. Joe Manchin) (Last month: 20)
If you had to look up John Raese, the Republican challenging Sen. Joe Manchin, we forgive you. We have to every now and then too. Perhaps no state will feature as many crossover voters as West Virginia.
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