The presidential contest has virtually overshadowed the battle for control of the Senate, but some fuzzy races are finally resolving themselves. Democrats still face an uphill slog to keep their narrow majority, but the picture looks better than it has for months -- especially given Elizabeth Warren's strength in Massachusetts.
In this, the third 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. 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 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. 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)
Not to say we called it, but our last rankings came out just days before Sen. Ben Nelson said he wouldn't seek a third term. Democrats face long odds to keep Nelson's seat even if they recruit former Sen. Bob Kerrey, who's exploring a challenge. Their best hope is for a squabble in the Republican primary to break into open war.
|NORTH DAKOTA (Open D, Sen. Kent Conrad is retiring)
Democrat Heidi Heitkamp made the best of a bad situation by distancing herself from President Obama's Keystone XL pipeline decision, which gives her an excuse to tout her independent credentials. But that just underscores North Dakota's red hue. Unless Rep. Rick Berg royally screws up, he'll remain the heavy favorite.
|MISSOURI (D, Sen. Claire McCaskill)
The Republican primary is Claire McCaskill's best friend. Businessman John Brunner continues to improve as a candidate, but he'll have to spend big to get past better-known Republicans Todd Akin (who's proving a lackluster fundraiser) and Sarah Steelman (who some GOP strategists fear is unelectable). McCaskill's bad fortune to be running on the same ticket as President Obama in an increasingly red state still makes her the most vulnerable Democrat seeking another term.
|MASSACHUSETTS (R, Sen. Scott Brown)
Hey, this Elizabeth Warren character can raise money -- $5.7 million of it in just three months, to be precise. A deal that would keep outside PACs from spending helps Brown more than Warren, but at the clip she's moving Warren won't need that outside help. Brown is all about his independent stands, the only hope he's got of keeping his seat in a state President Obama will win by 20.
|MONTANA (D, Sen. Jon Tester)
Like Heitkamp, Tester finds himself in an awkward, yet somewhat helpful, position over the Keystone pipeline, which would run through Montana. He gets to distance himself in a state Obama's not going to win, but in an era in which party identification plays a bigger role, that "D" after his name could wind up being a scarlet letter. Watch Rep. Denny Rehberg gleefully tie Tester and Obama together all year long.
|NEVADA (R, Sen. Dean Heller)
This race is a tale of two counties, southern Clark County and northern Washoe. Heller has never run television ads in Las Vegas, and Rep. Shelley Berkley has never been on the ballot in Reno. But here's some math Republicans are peddling these days: Even if Heller performs as badly as Sharron Angle did in Clark County, he can still win by running up the numbers in his home base in Washoe (He won the county by 20,000 votes in 2010). Berkley needs to develop a newfound love of Lake Tahoe.
|WISCONSIN (Open D, Sen. Herb Kohl retiring)
This race takes the prize for the most unpredictable. On its face, none of the four major candidates seems likely to win -- not the former governor who's lousy on the stump, not the liberal Congresswoman from Madison, not the unknown Assembly speaker and not the guy who lost to Russ Feingold in 1998. At least Rep. Tammy Baldwin has a clear primary; Tommy Thompson, Mark Neumann and Jeff Fitzgerald are mere moments from throwing fists on the Republican side.
|VIRGINIA (Open D, Sen. Jim Webb retiring)
Tell us who wins Virginia's electoral votes and we'll tell you who wins Sen. Jim Webb's seat. There aren't going to be a ton of crossover voters -- Tim Kaine's at just 5 percent among Republicans, and George Allen gets just 8 percent of Democrats, according to a December Quinnipiac poll -- meaning Kaine's chances track closely with President Obama's and Allen's will depend on the eventual GOP nominee.
|NEW MEXICO (Open D, Sen. Jeff Bingaman retiring)
Both Democrat Martin Heinrich and Republican Heather Wilson appear to be solidifying their leads over challengers in their respective primaries. A Heinrich-Wilson matchup would focus on the Albuquerque-based district they both represented in Congress. While Democrats are confident in Heinrich's chances, Republicans are starting to view the race as a potential sleeper that could break their way, especially if President Obama's campaign falters.
|HAWAII (Open D, Sen. Daniel Akaka retiring)
Ex-Rep. Ed Case is on the air with his first television ad and Rep. Mazie Hirono has a poll showing her leading. Democrats' biggest problem is going to be uniting after the state's very late primary, and in the face of well-funded ex-Gov. Linda Lingle. But in a state Obama carried with 72 percent, Lingle's challenge will be convincing very Democratic voters to split tickets.
|FLORIDA (D, Sen. Bill Nelson)
Conventional wisdom in Florida puts Rep. Connie Mack well ahead of the rest of the Republican field, but the odds of knocking off Nelson are still long. The primary is late and Nelson has a huge warchest he can use to bury the eventual nominee. An anti-incumbent wave will have to be pretty high to upset Nelson's boat.
|OHIO (D, Sen. Sherrod Brown)
Brown is that rarest of politicians whose approval rating isn't that bad. He has a hefty lead over Treasurer Josh Mandel, though Mandel's fundraising in 2011 was stellar. Mandel will likely fall short of expectations this quarter, but only because he's set the bar so high for himself. Expect Mandel to start rolling out something that looks like a more formal campaign apparatus in the coming weeks.
|MICHIGAN (D, Sen. Debbie Stabenow)
Michigan is another race in which the primary is the main story right now. Emotionally, Republicans think the eventual winner should have a shot at beating Stabenow. Intellectually, they know they're going to have a very hard time competing in Michigan over the long term.
|CONNECTICUT (Open I/D, Sen. Joe Lieberman retiring)
Rep. Chris Murphy and 2010 candidate Linda McMahon are the front-runners in their respective primaries. Ex-Rep. Chris Shays, whose crossover appeal might have given Republicans a good chance at winning back the seat, had a disappointing fundraising quarter to kick off his bid.
|INDIANA (R, Sen. Richard Lugar)
FreedomWorks will spend money on Republican Richard Mourdock's behalf, they said this week, but Lugar has hit the airwaves already and he's not likely coming down until after the primary. Conservative operatives insist Mourdock will win the primary, but there's not much evidence that he's gaining steam. A Mourdock win is the only chance Rep. Joe Donnelly has to steal the seat for Democrats.
|ARIZONA (Open R, Sen. Jon Kyl retiring)
Democrats really like former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, and he raised an impressive amount for a first-time candidate. There's the possibility that big-spending businessman Wil Cardon could give Rep. Jeff Flake a headache in the Republican primary, but Flake is still the overall favorite for the seat. Arizona is changing, but it's not changing fast enough to give Democrats anything but a long shot at the seat.
|PENNSYLVANIA (D, Sen. Bob Casey)
The free-spending self-funder in the Republican race is up with advertisements (Okay, that's a joke, there are about seven self-funders in the race so far). Casey's numbers look just fine, and barring a big-time candidate, he'll win another term.
|NEW JERSEY (D, Sen. Bob Menendez)
State Sen. Joe Kyrillos is the latest Republican who thinks Menendez's terrible approval ratings means the Democrat will lose. But New Jersey reminds us of the penultimate scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Holy Grail looks so tantalizing, but it's just ever so slightly out of reach.
|WEST VIRGINIA (D, Sen. Joe Manchin)
Republicans found a candidate at the last minute in John Raese, a businessman who's run for statewide office four times. Unfortunately, they found him at his home in Florida. Raese flew from Palm Beach to Charleston to file for office at the very last minute. Expect Manchin to win a full term.
|(TIE) MAINE (R, Sen. Olympia Snowe)
Some day, Democrats will win this seat. But that's not going to happen until Snowe decides to retire. None of the three Democrats running this year have a great shot.
|(TIE) WASHINGTON (D, Sen. Maria Cantwell)
Republican Michael Baumgartner, who represents part of Spokane in the state Senate, is challenging Cantwell. He's a sharp candidate, but he's from the wrong part of the state; no Eastern Washingtonian has won a Senate seat since the 1920s. Cantwell should cruise.