Things were already looking up for Senate Democrats: Only a few incumbents look very vulnerable, only a handful of open seats were tilting toward the GOP and Democrats had put two Republican incumbents in vulnerable positions. Sen. Olympia Snowe's shocking decision to retire -- she didn't even give Republican officials in Washington a heads up -- should have Democrats grinning from ear to ear.
Democrats' odds of keeping control of the upper chamber just improved markedly -- that scenario is now a possibility, hovering on a probability.
In this, the fourth 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) (Last month's rank: 1)
Former Sen. Bob Kerrey just can't make up his mind. He has called Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to discuss the prospect of jumping into the race, but his would-be campaign manager poured cold water on early reports that he was definitely in. Regardless of Kerrey's final (or final-final) decision, Republicans are still in a strong position to pick up a very red state. They need only make sure the primary doesn't devolve into the political equivalent of a total nuclear meltdown. State Attorney General Jon Bruning is the front-runner.
|NORTH DAKOTA (Open D, Sen. Kent Conrad is retiring) (Last month: 2)
Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp got off to a fast fundraising start, but a lot of her money comes from Washington. Rep. Rick Berg continues to build his warchest, but there remains some animosity toward him back home. Unless 2012 turns into a Democratic tidal wave, Berg should win on the eventual Republican nominee's coattails.
|MISSOURI (D, Sen. Claire McCaskill) (Last month: 3)
None of the three Republicans vying for the chance to run against McCaskill are A-level candidates. But McCaskill, who won by three points in an excellent year for Democratic outsiders, must now run for a second term burdened with incumbency, and burdened with a party label that's become less popular inside Missouri. Consensus is forming that McCaskill will face an uphill climb.
|MAINE (Open R, Sen. Olympia Snowe retiring) (Last month: 20)
Snowe's retirement came as a shock to the political world. She would have waltzed into another term. Instead, she throws open a federal seat in a very blue state in a presidential year (Obama won 58 percent here in 2008). Republicans will argue they had success in 2010, and the prospect of independent candidate Eliot Cutler running will scare some Democrats. But if Democrats can pick the right nominee -- both Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud will consider the race -- this seat should be theirs for the taking.
|MASSACHUSETTS (R, Sen. Scott Brown) (Last month: 4)
Most surveys show this race neck and neck, or show Democrat Elizabeth Warren leading Republican Scott Brown narrowly. We say "most" because a recent Suffolk University poll shows Brown ahead by nine points, which certainly looks like an outlier. But every poll agrees that Brown's re-elect number and favorable rating are down somewhat, troubling signs for an incumbent. And while their agreement to limit the influence of outside groups hinders Warren more than Brown, neither candidate will want for cash. This remains Democrats' best shot at knocking off a Republican incumbent.
|MONTANA (D, Sen. Jon Tester) (Last month: 5)
Most observers believe Rep. Denny Rehberg is ahead of Democrat Jon Tester by a few points, but neither candidate is crossing 50 percent any time soon. Expect outside groups to drive the conversation in a small state with cheap media markets. For a Democrat running in a red state, that's bad news. Tester will have to turn on his full populist charm to keep his job.
|NEVADA (R, Sen. Dean Heller) (Last month: 6)
Our analysis of previously unreleased exit poll data shows a real problem for Sen. Dean Heller: The surge in the minority share of the electorate is working in Democrats' favor; between 2006 and 2008, the state shifted toward Democrats by a nearly two-point margin. Republicans make the valid point that Heller is no Sharron Angle, and real questions remain about Rep. Shelley Berkley's appeal beyond Las Vegas. But if Berkley can keep this race close, Democrats will benefit from a big surge of Hispanic and African American voters that the party has relied on for recent wins.
|WISCONSIN (Open D, Sen. Herb Kohl retiring) (Last month: 7)
Once we know the identity of the Republican nominee, we'll have a much better handle on this true tossup. Republicans will pillory Rep. Tammy Baldwin as a Madison liberal, and she hasn't done a lot to create space for herself in the middle. But the GOP nominee will be flawed, and wounded from an ugly primary battle. If President Obama makes it a priority to put away Wisconsin early, he'll help drag Baldwin across the finish line. But if the presidential race is close, the Senate race will be a squeaker.
|VIRGINIA (Open D, Sen. Jim Webb retiring) (Last month: 8)
Like Nevada, Democrats gain from a big boost in minority turnout in a presidential year, as we found in our baseline analysis. And Republican George Allen had a major problem connecting with college-educated white voters when he lost in 2006. The fact that Democrat Tim Kaine is hammering Allen on social issues, and not the other way around, says all one needs to know about how much the state has changed in the span of a few short years.
|NEW MEXICO (Open D, Sen. Jeff Bingaman retiring) (Last month: 9)
Republicans caught a break when Lieutenant Gov. John Sanchez decided to end his bid for the nomination, giving Rep. Heather Wilson a clean shot. She'll likely face Rep. Martin Heinrich who, though he faces a Democratic challenger in state Auditor Hector Balderas, has the party establishment's support. If any Republican can connect with Hispanics, it's Heather Wilson. That's crucial in a state that's now majority-minority. And that fact alone makes Heinrich the slight favorite.
|FLORIDA (D, Sen. Bill Nelson) (Last month: 11)
Bill Nelson has a lot of money, and his numbers are relatively good for an incumbent in this anti-incumbent environment. The Republican primary is getting uglier, as Rep. Connie Mack and former Sen. George LeMieux devolve into fights over who most closely resembles Charlie Sheen. But Florida will be close at the presidential level, and it'll be close on the Senate level if the eventual GOP nominee -- likely Mack at this point -- can avoid spilling too much blood.
|HAWAII (Open D, Sen. Daniel Akaka retiring) (Last month: 10)
Former Gov. Linda Lingle makes a strong case for how a moderate Republican could steal a seat after a bitter and late Democratic primary saps her rival's coffers. But polling shows Lingle trails both potential Democrats by 20 points, and President Obama could win the state by 40 points. That makes Lingle's a long, hard slog, one that's probably out of reach.
|OHIO (D, Sen. Sherrod Brown) (Last month: 12)
Brown continues to poll well ahead of Treasurer Josh Mandel, and his favorable ratings and job approvals are stronger than most comparable incumbents. But Republicans will always have the chance to make this ultimate swing state competitive. Brown will always be just a little too liberal for the state; his populism is what makes him, well, popular.
|INDIANA (R, Sen. Richard Lugar) (Last month: 15)
Richard Lugar's campaign has been all about residency lately -- his own, and why he doesn't live in Indiana. Not a great message when you're trying to convince voters you're in touch with their problems. A recent opinion from the state Attorney General's office looks like it's turned the page on what could have been a scary moment for the campaign. Democrats' only hope here is if Treasurer Richard Mourdock defeats Lugar in a Republican primary. Rep. Joe Donnelly is waiting in the wings for that very possibility.
|MICHIGAN (D, Sen. Debbie Stabenow) (Last month: 13)
It's hard for a candidate to hurt himself by running a television advertisement, but that's what Rep. Pete Hoekstra did when he authorized a Super Bowl commercial with an actress speaking in broken English. Hoekstra is still the favorite in the Republican primary, but his poll numbers dropped against Stabenow, who remains safely over the 50 percent mark.
|CONNECTICUT (Open I/D, Sen. Joe Lieberman retiring) (Last month: 14)
Rep. Chris Murphy is consolidating his front-runner status, and former WWE executive Linda McMahon is actually trying to raise some money from someone other than herself. In a blue state President Obama's likely to win big, however, it's hard to see how McMahon improves on her 2010 performance, when she lost by 12 points.
|ARIZONA (Open R, Sen. Jon Kyl retiring) (Last month: 16)
He has a wealthy opponent, but Rep. Jeff Flake looks like he's cruising toward the Republican nomination so far. That could change if Wil Cardon decides to spend his money on an ad barrage, but he hasn't yet. On the other side, Richard Carmona is establishing himself as the front-runner over former Democratic Party chairman Don Bivens; national Democrats prefer Carmona, but neither has run statewide before, making the primary a real race. If Hispanics play a huge role in Arizona this year, the race could be competitive. But Arizona as a swing state is probably a few years down the line.
|PENNSYLVANIA (D, Sen. Bob Casey) (Last month: 17)
Republican Gov. Tom Corbett tried to unite his party behind businessman Steve Welch, but other Republicans are still promising to contest the primary. The winner will face an uphill bid against Casey, one Democrat who fits his state very well.
|NEW JERSEY (D, Sen. Bob Menendez) (Last month: 18)
New Jersey will never love Bob Menendez, but they like him enough that Republicans will have a very hard time beating him. State Sen. Joe Kyrillos is trying to make this a race by invoking Chris Christie, but even Christie only took 48 percent in a low-turnout off year election.
|WEST VIRGINIA (D, Sen. Joe Manchin) (Last month: 19)
Manchin finally has an opponent in John Raese, the businessman making yet another run for statewide office. But unless Manchin decides to hug President Obama, endorse cap and trade and declare himself a full-on liberal, he'll win re-election. There's not much chance Manchin, who brags about not being invited to the White House, is going to sabotage his centrist reputation.