The conventions are over. The kids are back at school. Advertising fills the airwaves. And now the races that will decide which party controls the Senate are beginning to catch voters' attention.
In this, the ninth 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 August rankings here).
|NEBRASKA (Open D, Sen. Ben Nelson retiring) (Last month's rank: 1)
Former Sen. Bob Kerrey still needs a miracle to save this seat for the Democrats. We'll say it again: In this race, we'd much rather be GOP state Sen. Deb Fischer.
|MAINE (Open R, Sen. Olympia Snowe retiring) (Last month: 2)
Republicans think they can shoot the gap here by bringing Democrat Cynthia Dill's numbers up enough to reduce independent Angus King's ceiling. If Republican Charlie Summers can match Mitt Romney's vote performance in the state, they have a shot — and they're spending money to make that happen. But King is still the favorite.
|MONTANA (D, Sen. Jon Tester) (Last month: 4)
No Democrat needs to craft an independent image more than Tester. There are signs he's accomplished that, even as Republicans try to equate the flat-topped dirt farmer — Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Executive Director Guy Cecil's words, not ours — with President Obama. An initiative on the ballot rejecting Obamacare isn't going to help Tester, though, and by all accounts Rep. Denny Rehberg's campaign is suddenly operating on a higher plane than it had been.
|NORTH DAKOTA (Open D, Sen. Kent Conrad retiring) (Last month: 3)
Rep. Rick Berg's unfavorable ratings are the most troubling metric Republicans see here. Former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp is on offense in a very red state, and the Democrat is having success running against Congress. Even as Berg tries to execute a discharge petition on the farm bill, his own caucus isn't helping him out.
|WISCONSIN (Open D, Sen. Herb Kohl retiring) (Last month: 7)
Ex-Gov. Tommy Thompson has money problems, and Democrats are confident they can paint him as having gone Washington. This is a race Republicans should win, given the matchup between Thompson and Rep. Tammy Baldwin. But Baldwin is keeping it close, and a post-convention bounce for President Obama is helping her narrow the gap. Expect this race to cost the National Republican Senatorial Committee some money. Observers are eagerly awaiting new polling from Marquette, Quinnipiac, and Marist, all due out later this week.
|MASSACHUSETTS (R, Sen. Scott Brown) (Last month: 6)
Up until last week, Democrats were getting antsy. Time was running out for Elizabeth Warren to begin taking an ax to Brown's remarkably high favorable ratings. Now she's beginning to draw the contrast, and while the early negative ads are tame compared with those in any other state, Democrats are suddenly in a better mood. Several polls earlier this week show numbers moving in Warren's direction. It helps that Obama leads Romney by a 2-to-1 margin generally, and by a wider margin among those who haven't decided on a Senate candidate.
|NEVADA (R, Sen. Dean Heller) (Last month: 8)
A funny thing happened after the House Ethics Committee decided to investigate Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley's involvement on behalf of a kidney clinic in which her husband had a financial stake: Nothing. The numbers aren't moving here, which indicates voters had already made up their minds on the charges and/or that Berkley did a good job rapidly responding. Heller remains the slight favorite, but the Democratic turnout machine — and the corresponding implosion of the state GOP — are cause for the incumbent's discomfort.
|VIRGINIA (Open D, Sen. Jim Webb retiring) (Last month: 9)
The last 6,000 polls (give or take) in Virginia have the race between Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen tied. But Kaine has room to grow: Those same polls show he's running 8 to 10 percentage points behind President Obama among nonwhite voters. That gap isn't going to exist on Election Day, meaning Kaine's poll numbers are lower than they should be. But Allen isn't going away, and his team thinks he's ahead.
|MISSOURI (D, Sen. Claire McCaskill) (Last month: 8)
GOP Rep. Todd Akin is perilously low on money, and he's not getting any support from the outside Republican groups. He also shows no signs of dropping his bid — the best news McCaskill could get these days. Once the deadline for dropping out passes next week, watch McCaskill carpetbomb her rival to try to put this race away.
|INDIANA (Open R, Sen. Richard Lugar defeated in primary) (Last month: 13)
National Democrats have long been bullish on Rep. Joe Donnelly's odds. National Republicans poo-pooed their chances — but now the NRSC is buying air time on GOP primary winner Richard Mourdock's behalf. Mourdock still has the advantage because of the state's Republican lean, but Donnelly is competitive enough that Republicans are nervous.
|CONNECTICUT (Open D, Sen. Joe Lieberman retiring) (Last month: 13)
Connecticut is to Democrats what Indiana is to Republicans — a state that shouldn't be competitive but that keeps them up at night. Polls show Republican Linda McMahon is close to or leading Rep. Chris Murphy, and Democrats have started a $320,000 ad blitz to help their guy off the mat. But that much money is chump change to Team McMahon. Murphy needs to attack, an unenviable position for what should be a safe Democratic seat.
|FLORIDA (D, Sen. Bill Nelson) (Last month: 10)
If Elizabeth Warren or Scott Brown needs a tutorial on what a negative ad looks like, they need look no further than Nelson or Rep. Connie Mack. The Florida contest started off as the nastiest in the nation, and it's only getting worse. Nelson went negative early to define Mack, and public and private polling shows that was a smart strategy. Mack isn't completely out of it yet, but Nelson has the advantage.
|OHIO (D, Sen. Sherrod Brown) (Last month: 11)
This is a yo-yo race. The moment state Treasurer Josh Mandel started advertising, Brown raced to define him. And while Mandel closed, Brown has now opened up a decent lead. With Obama leading Romney in Ohio, Mandel's job is only getting more difficult.
|ARIZONA (Open R, Sen. Jon Kyl retiring) (Last month: 14)
Richard Carmona is the Democratic version of Heather Wilson: a stellar candidate facing a landscape that's simply too tough. Rep. Jeff Flake rolled through his GOP primary, and he's doing well enough to be the heavy favorite in November.
|NEW MEXICO (Open D, Sen. Jeff Bingaman retiring) (Last month: 12)
Republicans have pulled funding from New Mexico in order to redeploy it to North Dakota and other states. The private polling reflects public polls that show Democratic Rep. Martin Heinrich pulling away from former Rep. Heather Wilson. She's probably the best candidate who won't win this year.
|MICHIGAN (D, Sen. Debbie Stabenow) (Last month: 16)
Sen. Debbie Stabenow has started campaigning for Democrats running in other states. That's how concerned she is with the challenge former Rep. Pete Hoekstra poses.
|HAWAII (Open D, Sen. Dan Akaka retiring) (Last month: 17)
Former Gov. Linda Lingle needs to attract between a quarter and a third of President Obama's voters to win here. Rep. Mazie Hirono is highly likely to be a Democratic senator in the 113th Congress.
|NEW JERSEY (D, Sen. Bob Menendez) (Last month: 19)
State Sen. Joe Kyrillos started off strong, but he's been largely under the radar since a big first fundraising quarter. It would take a wave election and a ton of negative attention focused on Menendez for the Republican to pull off an upset; he's not benefiting from either right now.
|PENNSYLVANIA (D, Sen. Robert Casey) (Last month: 18)
We haven't seen a lot out of GOP businessman Tom Smith lately. Casey is cruising toward a second term, and the fact that Mitt Romney's team isn't seriously contesting Pennsylvania is just another nail in Smith's coffin.
|WASHINGTON (D, Sen. Maria Cantwell) (Last month: --)
We dropped West Virginia off the list because Republican businessman John Raese isn't the competitive candidate he once was. That's not to say state Sen. Michael Baumgartner is going to have a good shot to beat Cantwell, but at least he's debating her already.