Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the partisan breakdown of South Dakota's congressional delegation. It is made up of two Republicans and one Democrat.
What goes around comes around. After losing virtually every toss-up Senate race in 2006, Republicans find themselves in prime position to pick up the four seats they need to control the Senate. And Democrats' success five years ago means Republicans have plenty of targets from which to choose.
In this, the first installment of Hotline's monthly Senate race rankings, we examine the seats most likely to change partisan control in next year's elections. That is, we see Sen. Kent Conrad's seat in North Dakota as more likely to wind up in Republican hands than Sen. Ben Nelson's seat in Nebraska, and Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts more likely to lose to a Democrat than Nevada 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 Rep. Rick 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 ring 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.
The bottom line: It's a target-rich environment for the GOP, but unlike in 2010, Democrats have opportunities to make life very uncomfortable for at least a few Republicans.
|NORTH DAKOTA (Open, Sen. Kent Conrad retiring)
Republican Rep. Rick Berg is the odds-on favorite to take over retiring Sen. Conrad's seat. Democrats have their favorite candidate in former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, but the party is suffering in the Great Plains. Once, Democrats held all six federal offices in North and South Dakota; after 2012, Republicans are likely to control five. The one caveat: Berg isn't the most popular Republican in the state, giving Democrats the tiniest opening to sneak through.
|NEBRASKA (D, Sen. Ben Nelson)
Democrats have already spent more than $1.2 million on early advertisements defending Nelson, but he hasn't said definitively whether he will run. Still, whether this is an open seat or not, Republicans have a great shot against Nelson, who voted in favor of the stimulus package and health care reform. Nelson has tried to distance himself from his party, but he's taken unpopular votes that will be hard to get away from.
|MONTANA (D, Sen. Jon Tester)
The Treasure State begins a long list of contests that can only be described as toss-ups. Tester won election in 2006 as a populist, and he's maintained that image. But more Montanans have voted for Rep. Denny Rehberg; he's won eight statewide races in his career. Expect both Tester and Rehberg to be drowned out by outside spending. In a race that will be decided by only a few points either way, both candidates will have to rely on allies to bring down the other guy's high approval ratings.
|MISSOURI (D, Sen. Claire McCaskill)
If Republicans had been able to find a top-tier challenger, McCaskill would be in more trouble. She faces a lackluster GOP field, but she's in for the fight of her political life anyway. McCaskill got in trouble earlier this year for reimbursing a company her husband owns for plane flights, a serious flub that could undermine her image as a good-government reformer. But Democrats say the issue hasn't registered with voters, and they're confident they have a candidate who can appeal to crossover voters when matched up with an eventual Republican nominee they will paint as a partisan hack.
|MASSACHUSETTS (R, Sen. Scott Brown)
Brown's victory in January 2010 was a sign of deep unhappiness with the Democratic Party. But that win came in the unique vacuum of a special election, and now he'll have to run alongside President Obama, who is likely to come close to the 62 percent he won in the Bay State in 2008. Brown has the ability to win crossover votes, but winning over one in five Obama voters is a tough bar to reach for any Republican. Republicans are privately concerned that likely Democratic nominee Elizabeth Warren is a real contender; her fundraising performance and her early volunteer recruitment signals she's no Martha Coakley.
|NEVADA (R, Sen. Dean Heller)
There will be no greater contrast in 2012 than the rural cowboy Heller, whose idea of a vacation is to ride his horse into the Sierra Nevada, versus former cocktail waitress Shelley Berkley, who so epitomizes Las Vegas that her dad was maitre d' at The Sands. Both will fight for a small segment of undecided voters in the Las Vegas suburbs and in Heller's backyard of Washoe County. Berkley will benefit from Sen. Harry Reid's turnout machine, which will be running at maximum capacity in an effort to win Nevada for President Obama. Heller, on the other hand, has deep roots in Washoe, the most important swing area in the state.
|WISCONSIN (Open, Sen. Herb Kohl retiring)
One method we use in determining the competitiveness of a race is to ask ourselves, Who would we rather be? In this case, we have to choose between Republicans, with a messy primary field that could produce a broke and weak nominee, or Democrats, who are poised to nominate a liberal incumbent member of an unpopular Congress from Madison. Republicans privately want state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald to win their primary; some believe ex-Gov. Tommy Thompson won't actually get into the race, and while ex-Rep. Mark Neumann is getting some conservative backing, he angered some Republicans by opposing Scott Walker in the 2010 governor's race. The eventual nominee will face Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who hasn't made many moves toward the center just yet.
|VIRGINIA (Open, Sen. Jim Webb retiring)
Why would anybody waste money polling this race? Trust us, the fight between ex-Sen. George Allen and ex-Gov. Tim Kaine is going to be a two-point race either way. Allen's major thrust at the moment is to tie Kaine, the former DNC chairman, to President Obama. But despite Obama's weak numbers in the state, Kaine's approval rating has remained remarkably steady. Kaine will do better with crossover voters than Allen, giving him the tiniest of advantages.
|NEW MEXICO (Open, Sen. Jeff Bingaman retiring)
Both Democrats and Republicans face competitive Anglo-versus-Hispanic primaries here, but the likeliest matchup would pit Rep. Martin Heinrich against ex-Rep. Heather Wilson. Both represented the same Albuquerque-area district, which is likely to be the race's biggest battleground. Wilson has a centrist record, though she's trying to downplay it in the GOP primary, and she would give Republicans a shot to compete. But New Mexico has trended very blue in recent years, making Heinrich the slight favorite.
|OHIO (D, Sen. Sherrod Brown)
Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel is a fundraising machine. He has outraised Brown twice in two quarters, and he's rapidly closing the gap on Brown's initial advantage. But most Republicans aren't terribly optimistic about their chances here, largely because Mandel is so young—and he looks it. Brown is probably too liberal for the state, which works in the GOP's favor. But he comes from the populist wing of the Democratic Party, and his early approval ratings are notably strong for an incumbent in an anti-incumbent atmosphere.
|HAWAII (Open, Sen. Daniel Akaka retiring)
Former Gov. Linda Lingle is probably the one Republican in the country who embraces the RINO label. She needs to be seen as an independent in President Obama's home state. Lingle will benefit from what's likely to be a major schism in the Democratic field, as Rep. Mazie Hirono and ex-Rep. Ed Case battle it out in a late primary. But she may need as many as 20 points of split-ticket voting to overcome Obama's huge support; Republicans haven't elected a senator in the Aloha State since Hiram Fong won reelection in 1970.
|FLORIDA (D, Sen. Bill Nelson)
The Sunshine State should be a great pickup opportunity for Republicans, but the party is curiously pessimistic about their chances to beat Nelson. Rep. Connie Mack leads a packed Republican field at the moment, but there are openings for a more conservative candidate to emerge. Nelson has good approval ratings and more cash than most Republican presidential candidates, putting him in strong position to defend his seat no matter which way Florida's electoral votes swing.
|MICHIGAN (D, Sen. Debbie Stabenow)
No state has been mired in economic recession as long as Michigan. And even after the Obama administration moved to bail out automakers, the president's approval ratings have suffered. Obama will have to work hard to keep this usually-Democratic state in the fold, and Stabenow's own low approval ratings show she's not completely safe either. A competitive Republican primary will slow her eventual opponent's fundraising, and Stabenow has a history of defining her opponent early. Still, if any Republican can take advantage of an anti-incumbent wave, it might be in a state where voters are sick of the status quo.
|INDIANA (R, Sen. Richard Lugar)
If the tea party movement will claim any Republican incumbents this year, Lugar is the most likely victim. And if this list were of most vulnerable incumbents, rather than seats most likely to switch, Lugar would be closer to the top; state Treasurer Richard Mourdock has a good shot at beating Lugar in the primary. Democrats have a good candidate in Rep. Joe Donnelly, but Indiana is a very red state, and Donnelly would have to outperform Obama in traditionally conservative areas by five or more points to have a shot. Even if Lugar loses, Republicans are confident they will keep this seat.
|CONNECTICUT (Open, Sen. Joe Lieberman retiring)
Former WWE executive Linda McMahon couldn't win in the Republican wave of 2010, and her chances don't look a lot better now. But unlike her rival then, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, neither of the two likeliest Democratic nominees are well-known. More-moderate ex-Rep. Chris Shays will challenge McMahon in the primary, but McMahon's money will prove a big hurdle for Shays. Rep. Chris Murphy is favored over former Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz on the Democratic side, and the winner will be favored next November. But McMahon's personal fortune will keep it close.
|PENNSYLVANIA (D, Sen. Bob Casey)
The storyline three months ago: Republicans can't recruit a candidate! The storyline today: Republicans have a ton of candidates running against Casey, but no one knows any of them. Casey has charted a course that's in line with Pennsyvlania, and his Scranton roots won't let Republicans paint him as a Philadelphia liberal. The eventual GOP nominee—there are six legitimate candidates running right now—will start the general election way behind.
|ARIZONA (Open, Sen. Jon Kyl retiring)
The sad fact for Democrats is that their bench, in a state that is changing rapidly to their advantage, is tragically thin. They got their best possible candidate in former Surgeon General Richard Carmona (rumors of a Gabrielle Giffords comeback, so soon after her traumatic injury at the hands of a madman, were always fantasy), but his potential remains to be seen. Rep. Jeff Flake, the Republican front-runner, will have to get by self-funding investor Wil Cardon, and his past immigration stands could get him in trouble. But Flake is still the heavy favorite to become a senator next year.
|NEW JERSEY (D, Sen. Bob Menendez)
If New Jersey is in play next year, Harry Reid should start sizing up the minority leader's office. But Menendez will never be hugely popular statewide, giving Republicans a perpetual hope. Watch for a number of state legislators to enter the race in the coming months after winning their off-year reelection bids, but don't expect any to seriously challenge Menendez come next fall.
|MAINE (R, Sen. Olympia Snowe)
The tea party could easily make the case that Snowe is a Republican in name only. She's perhaps the biggest source of frustration for Washington conservatives. But she fits Maine, and anyone to her right would face almost insurmountable odds in winning another term. Two Democrats are running, and they would have a great chance if Snowe somehow fell in a GOP primary. But Snowe's only credible challenger is woefully underfunded, and she's likely to cruise to a fourth term.
|(TIE) TEXAS (Open, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison retiring)
On one hand, Texas Democrats have a candidate in retired Gen. Ric Sanchez, but he's proving disastrously inept at raising money. Without a serious influx of cash for Sanchez, the eventual winner of the Texas Republican primary will roll over Sanchez.
|(TIE) WEST VIRGINIA (D, Sen. Joe Manchin)
On the other hand, West Virginia Republicans don't have a real candidate willing to run against the very popular Manchin. Even in a state that's going to be very red next year, the GOP needs a candidate if they're going to put up a real fight. Without a game-changing Republican recruit, Manchin will win.