What do Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid, Charlie Cook, Stu Rothenberg, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee have in common? They all see control of the Senate in the 113th Congress as an even-money bet.
We see it the same way. While conventional wisdom at the beginning of the cycle suggested that the number of Democratic seats up for election this year gave Republicans a better-than-even chance of taking control, Democratic recruiting efforts, fate, and circumstances have intervened. As it stands today, the odds of predicting a coin flip are as good as the odds of predicting Senate control.
In this, the seventh installment of Hotline's monthly Senate rankings, we examine the seats most likely to change partisan control in next 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 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)
Polls show state Sen. Deb Fischer leading former Sen. Bob Kerrey by a wide margin. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid may have offered to help persuade his fellow Democrats to count Kerrey's previous service toward his seniority, but Reid isn't likely to suffer the consequences. Expect Fischer to join the Senate next year.
|MAINE (Open R, Sen. Olympia Snowe is retiring) (Last month: 2)
The Chamber of Commerce has become the first group to show any interest in Republican nominee Charlie Summers. But polling shows that Summers is far behind former Gov. Angus King. We still don't know which side King will caucus with, but Democrats are fond of pointing out that he backs President Obama and shares a pollster with Sen. John Kerry.
|MISSOURI (D, Sen. Claire McCaskill) (Last month: 4)
McCaskill's odds have never been good, and public polling that shows her trailing all three of her potential Republican opponents mirrors internal surveys. Everything that went right for her in 2006 -- her outsider status, her job as state auditor, and the anti-Republican, anti-establishment wave -- have turned on McCaskill: She's now the insider, defending her record and her party's unpopular president in a White House year. Businessman John Brunner leads the Republican primary, and Democrats believe they have the opposition research to make the general competitive, but the next three months will be a tough slog for McCaskill.
|NORTH DAKOTA (Open D, Sen. Kent Conrad is retiring) (Last month: 3)
Former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp is keeping this red state competitive. Republicans believe they can bring her numbers down by tying her to President Obama -- but they're going to have to spend money to do it. Already, the Crossroads groups have started spending against Heitkamp. Rep. Rick Berg has plenty of money of his own, and Heitkamp's burn rate is high. But Democrats are in a better position than they should be, all based on the strength of a strong recruit.
|MASSACHUSETTS (R, Sen. Scott Brown) (Last month: 6)
The same arguments that Republicans use to suggest they'll win North Dakota are the ones Democrats use to talk up their chances in the Bay State: Their presidential candidate is going to get close to 60 percent of the vote, meaning the other side has to win a huge, perhaps impossibly high, percentage of crossover voters. Sen. Scott Brown is still popular, but getting one in six Obama voters to cast Republican Senate ballots is a tall order. Democrat Elizabeth Warren needs to connect Brown to Mitt Romney. Brown needs to bring Obama's approval ratings down. Outside groups running ads aimed at New Hampshire will help -- but the fact that Brown is going after Obama, even if only in a web video, is notable.
|MONTANA (D, Sen. Jon Tester) (Last month: 5)
Tester and Rep. Denny Rehberg have the rare opportunity to control most of their own race. Montana's inexpensive ad market means that both sides, and their respective campaign committees back in Washington, have already bought up most of the television time available between Labor Day and Election Day. Tester has a strong brand on which to run, and while President Obama isn't popular in the state, outgoing Gov. Brian Schweitzer sure is. Watch Tester sound the populist horn, while Rehberg tries to tie him to everything unpopular about Washington. Republicans still believe that Rehberg's campaign could be going better, but they see Tester as a top target.
|WISCONSIN (Open D, Sen. Herb Kohl is retiring) (Last month: 7)
Former Gov. Tommy Thompson is fighting for first place in the Republican primary with businessman Eric Hovde. The Club for Growth, which backs former Rep. Mark Neumann, is assaulting the other two. And Rep. Tammy Baldwin is waiting in the wings. It's clear that Thompson would be the best general-election candidate -- Democrats actually remember voting for him, after all. And for all Republicans' protestations that a Madison liberal like Baldwin can't win statewide, she'd fare much worse if she hailed from Milwaukee. Candidates from the largest city in Wisconsin don't do well statewide. Just ask Tom Barrett.
|NEVADA (R, Sen. Dean Heller) (Last month: 8)
How do we know the ethics investigation surrounding Rep. Shelley Berkley is becoming a vote-moving issue? Because Berkley is still talking about it. She's up with three new ads this week trying to turn her work on behalf of a kidney clinic into a liability for Heller. That tells us she's still worried about her image. Democrats are registering voters at a furious pace, giving Berkley reason for optimism, but until she gets lucky (or makes her own luck), Heller has a slight edge.
|VIRGINIA (Open D, Sen. Jim Webb retiring) (Last month: 10)
Our operating theory has been that former Gov. Tim Kaine will run ahead of President Obama by 2 or 3 points, which means he's the favorite to keep Webb's seat. But public polling isn't reflecting that yet. Republicans are counting on higher turnout in the southwest, where turnout lagged in 2008 and where traditionally social-conservative Democrats are beginning to vote more reliably Republican. That hope represents former Sen. George Allen's best chance.
|NEW MEXICO (Open D, Sen. Jeff Bingaman retiring) (Last month: 9)
Rep. Martin Heinrich has a lead over former Rep. Heather Wilson, but outside groups are only now getting involved. Crossroads has run ads hitting Heinrich, and the DSCC and pro-environment groups are responding with anti-Wilson ads. This race may be closer than the polling indicates -- or Democrats may be trying to put it away early. We'll watch post-Labor Day polling to figure out which way this race tips.
|FLORIDA (D, Sen. Bill Nelson) (Last month: 12)
Rep. Connie Mack is becoming more competitive simply by virtue of the state's closely divided nature. National Republicans are getting more interested in the race as public polling continues to show Mack running closely behind -- or in some cases narrowly ahead -- of Nelson. If Florida comes off the presidential table, watch Senate groups get more interested. Nelson's money, though, is an overwhelming advantage right now.
|OHIO (D, Sen. Sherrod Brown) (Last month: 11)
Public polling is why Republicans are growing more confident about Florida. But it's also why they're quietly growing more pessimistic about Ohio. Treasurer Josh Mandel started the race largely as an undefined figure, but Brown's campaign is casting him as a power-hungry career politician, and Mandel hasn't figured out a way to respond yet. Meanwhile, the millions spent against Brown so far haven't moved any numbers.
|ARIZONA (Open R, Sen. Jon Kyl retiring) (Last month: 13)
Rep. Jeff Flake seems to have turned something of a corner in his closer-than-expected primary. Businessman Wil Cardon still has the money to make a comeback, but time is running short before the August 28 primary. If Democrat Richard Carmona raises the money to compete, this could be the cycle's upset special. Still, Arizona's demographics are very different from its electorate, making Carmona an underdog.
|INDIANA (R, Sen. Richard Lugar defeated in primary) (Last month: 14)
Rep. Joe Donnelly is running a clever ad campaign, and his money situation improved after Sen. Dick Lugar lost his Republican primary. But state Treasurer Richard Mourdock is still the favorite, given Indiana's red hue. If Republican groups start advertising against Donnelly, it will be a sign the race is tightening.
|CONNECTICUT (Open I/D, Sen. Joe Lieberman is retiring) (Last month: 17)
Linda McMahon is very rich, and she's not afraid to spend her money. The biggest advantage that gives her is the ability to advertise on television in the costly New York City media market, where the eventual Democratic nominee -- very likely Rep. Chris Murphy -- won't be able to compete until the race's closing weeks. But in a presidential year in a state that gave Obama 61 percent in 2008, even that ad spending is unlikely to overcome the state's Democratic lean.
|MICHIGAN (D, Sen. Debbie Stabenow) (Last month: 15)
Former Rep. Pete Hoekstra is likely to win his primary next week, but polling shows Stabenow in good position. She will run a few points ahead of Obama, and her work on the farm bill will give her inroads to even more traditionally Republican territory. It will take something fundamental to reshape the race.
|HAWAII (Open D, Sen. Dan Akaka is retiring) (Last month: 16)
Sure, former Gov. Linda Lingle is the best nominee Republicans could hope for. But in a state where President Obama scored nearly three-quarters of the vote, "best" probably still isn't good enough. A Honolulu Star-Advertiser poll conducted earlier this month confirms that Lingle is behind both Rep. Mazie Hirono, the likely Democratic nominee, and ex-Rep. Ed Case.
|PENNSYLVANIA (D, Sen. Bob Casey) (Last month: 18)
Businessman Tom Smith only seems to get press when he serves as a Romney surrogate -- unless it's in a conservative publication here in Washington. Casey isn't feeling any heat yet.
|NEW JERSEY (D, Sen. Bob Menendez) (Last month: 20)
Democrats have won New Jersey, a state that defines the modern political machine, under much more difficult circumstances. State Sen. Joe Kyrillos is giving it his best, and he's actually raising good money, but Menendez isn't in jeopardy.
|WEST VIRGINIA (D, Sen. Joe Manchin) (Last month: 19)
Sen. Joe Manchin is a shoo-in for reelection. Parlor game: When he runs for a second full term in 2018, will he still be running as a Democrat?