It's the political equivalent of The Night Before Christmas: The Senate field is largely set, with top recruits snug in their seats, and all through the DSCC and the NRSC, the only sounds that matter are the fundraisers dialing for dollars and the researchers paging through their binders.
Well, almost everything is set. To borrow a phrase from Donald Rumsfeld, there remains but one known unknown in the battle for control of the upper chamber -- whether Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., seeks a third term.
Nelson's indecision is the lone major change in our second Senate Race Rankings (see our first rankings here). Remember, we're ranking seats in order of the likelihood they change control in next year's elections.
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 in the GOP's position than in Democrats' 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.
|NEBRASKA (D, Sen. Ben Nelson) (LAST MONTH: 2)
One of the criteria we use to judge which race is most likely to flip is the simple question, who would we rather be? In this case, we'd rather be North Dakota Democrats, who picked up a potentially strong recruit, than Nebraska Democrats, who still aren't sure Nelson will run for reelection. Democrats have run more than $1.25 million in ads on Nelson's behalf, but internal polls he's released only show him leading the GOP field by a few points. If Nelson decides against a run, Cornhusker Democrats will be left high and dry.
|NORTH DAKOTA (Open, D, Sen. Kent Conrad retiring) (LAST MONTH: 1)
That being said, we don't envy North Dakota Democrats. State Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp will face a Republican, Rep. Rick Berg, who isn't universally loved, and she's off to a good fundraising start, we hear. But she'll be running in a state President Obama lost by eight points in 2008, and he'll lose it by a wider margin this time around. Factor in the GOP's gains in 2010 and Berg is the clear favorite.
|MISSOURI (D, Sen. Claire McCaskill) (LAST MONTH: 4)
McCaskill faces a weaker field than Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., but Republicans are very confident they can undermine her good-government reputation after she used taxpayer funds to reimburse a company her husband owns for charter flights. Democrats say the story hasn't dimmed her chances yet, but wait until a group like Crossroads puts money behind a paid advertising campaign.
|MASSACHUSETTS (R, Sen. Scott Brown) (LAST MONTH: 5)
Brown gets attention when he stands against his own party in Washington, a very good thing in a very blue state. But he'll have to attract a lot of crossover appeal to keep his job. Elizabeth Warren, meanwhile, is drawing huge crowds in her early drive for volunteers, and her fundraising this quarter is likely to be similar to her initial torrential pace. Crossroads has leveled mixed charges against Warren already, a sign that they haven't found the right angle of attack.
|MONTANA (D, Sen. Jon Tester) (LAST MONTH: 3)
This is one of the few states in which the likely nominees have started in on each other early. Opposing votes Tester and Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg make in Washington generate almost weekly headlines back home, setting up an early contrast for voters to consider. Expect the flap over extending the payroll-tax cut to play a role in the next few weeks.
|NEVADA (R, Sen. Dean Heller) (NO CHANGE)
Sources say Heller's team is aware they have to pick up the fundraising pace after two quarters in which Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley outraised the incumbent. If demographic changes are going to play a major role in any state, it's here, where Hispanic growth is booming. And that benefits Berkley. Republicans, however, have done well to close the voter-registration gap.
|WISCONSIN (Open, D, Sen. Herb Kohl retiring) (NO CHANGE)
Wisconsin is one of the rare states in which a competitive primary could matter, to the GOP's detriment. Tommy Thompson and Mark Neumann approach the primary with very different pasts, while Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald may be Republicans' best option. It remains to be seen how well Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin appeals to moderates and independents outside traditional Democratic bases in Milwaukee and Madison.
|VIRGINIA (Open, D, Sen. Jim Webb retiring) (NO CHANGE)
The first debate between Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine previewed the entire election: Allen will tie Kaine to his previous job as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Kaine will dredge up Allen's past regrettable comments. Democrats believe their candidate has more crossover appeal; they point out Kaine's numbers haven't tracked closely with President Obama's, who is still suffering but will make a major play for the state.
|NEW MEXICO (Open, D, Sen. Jeff Bingaman retiring) (NO CHANGE)
Democrats see Rep. Martin Heinrich with a consistent lead over ex-Rep. Heather Wilson, an assessment the GOP doesn't quibble with right now. Both sides have to be careful, though; with two Anglo-versus-Hispanic primaries, neither party can afford to alienate a fast-growing segment of the population. That Hispanic growth is what's fueling Democratic wins here of late.
|HAWAII (Open, D, Sen. Daniel Akaka retiring) (LAST MONTH: 11)
What the Wisconsin primary is to Republicans, the Hawaii primary will be to Democrats—a minefield. Hawaii will be the state in which the Democratic primary has the biggest impact. Republicans see ex-Rep. Ed Case as their most difficult potential opponent, but the DSCC is lining up behind Rep. Mazie Hirono, thanks to Sen. Daniel Inouye's influence. Ex-Gov. Linda Lingle's fundraising report is going to scare Democrats when it comes out in January.
|OHIO (D, Sen. Sherrod Brown) (LAST MONTH: 10)
We'll keep a close eye on Republican Josh Mandel's fundraising this quarter; reviews from his first two quarters are an unqualified success. But Brown's approval ratings are outstanding for an incumbent in an ugly year, and his reputation as a populist is serving him well. That makes Mandel's campaign an uphill fight.
|FLORIDA (D, Sen. Bill Nelson) (NO CHANGE)
Republicans finally have a candidate to rally around in Rep. Connie Mack, but Mack faces a primary challenge from several well-funded opponents. Even if Mack does make it into the general election, Nelson is well-funded and will have President Obama's organization helping him along. But Nelson's Space Coast base isn't what it used to be, especially after the end of the shuttle's mission, giving the GOP a crack at his seat.
|MICHIGAN (D, Sen. Debbie Stabenow) (NO CHANGE)
We'll be interested to see whether ex-Rep. Pete Hoekstra will have well-funded primary challengers. Stabenow's approval ratings and the state's economic morass suggest the incumbent should be vulnerable. But it's hard to find a better retail campaigner in the Midwest, and Stabenow's still the favorite.
|INDIANA (R, Sen. Richard Lugar) (NO CHANGE)
Another Republican is likely to jump into the race against Lugar, and that's only good news for the incumbent. Democrat Joe Donnelly is doing his best to stir up trouble with conservatives by praising Lugar's vote for a payroll-tax extension, but in truth, even if Donnelly gets to face someone else next year, odds are good that Republicans will save the seat.
|CONNECTICUT (Open, ID, Sen. Joe Lieberman retiring) (NO CHANGE)
For the second cycle in a row, wrestling executive Linda McMahon is running for an open Senate seat. She lost by 12 points in 2010, a good year for the GOP. No one has made a compelling case that she can do any better in 2012, when Democratic turnout will increase. The only problem Democrats face is the prospect of a bitter primary between Rep. Chris Murphy and former Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz.
|ARIZONA (Open, R, Sen. Jon Kyl retiring) (LAST MONTH: 17)
Both sides have primaries here, but the battle next fall is likely to be between Republican Rep. Jeff Flake and former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, a Democrat. Carmona's candidacy puts a spotlight on the growing importance of Hispanic voters in Arizona, but it's a few cycles too early for Democrats to be really competitive here.
|PENNSYLVANIA (D, Sen. Robert Casey) (LAST MONTH: 16)
The big, broad field running against Casey isn't what Republicans would classify as an embarrassment of riches. If Republicans are anywhere near competitive here, beating Casey would be the icing on a very large cake, rather than the seat that determines the majority.
|NEW JERSEY (D, Sen. Robert Menendez) (NO CHANGE)
Republicans are rallying around state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, and they will point to Menendez's perpetually terrible approval ratings. But Republicans have wasted a lot of money on Jersey Senate races over the years. They've been bitten more than once, and they're still pretty shy.
|MAINE (R, Sen. Olympia Snowe) (NO CHANGE)
The lack of a real, well-funded challenger from the right makes Snowe a safe bet in the primary. Democrats have two credible contenders duking it out for the nomination, and with it the right to lose to the incumbent.
|WEST VIRGINIA (D, Sen. Joe Manchin) (NO CHANGE)
Republicans still need a candidate here, but Manchin's poll numbers are scaring off any real challengers. This race looks like to get less, not more, interesting.
Off the list: Texas. Last month, we called Texas tied with West Virginia because at least Democrats had a candidate. Last week, retired Gen. Ric Sanchez dropped his bid, meaning Democrats lost their long-shot hope at stealing the seat.