With first-quarter fundraising reports due Wednesday, we'll have our first empirical benchmark for the 2010 cycle. What better time to handicap the most competitive Senate races for next year?
The big number for Democrats: one. That's what they need to hit 60 seats and a filibuster-proof majority. But Democrats have three of their own seats in danger, meaning the number they'll ultimately need to find is four. Here's the first crack at the seats most likely to switch parties next year -- No. 1 being the most likely, No. 10 the least.
1. Kentucky: How bad are things for Republican Jim Bunning? The most recent polling shows him losing to every potential Democratic challenger; he's admitted to having "lousy" fundraising numbers; and members of his own party are trying -- not so subtly -- to nudge him into retirement. The notoriously prickly senator doesn't really care what anyone thinks, which makes him a very dangerous nominee. But will he be the nominee? For now, there are lots of Republicans looking at challenging him, but none have pulled the trigger. If Bunning's fundraising is as weak as he hints it's going to be, that may help make those sitting on the fence more willing to jump off and into the race.
2. New Hampshire: Democrats have two big things going for them as they pursue the seat Republican Judd Gregg is vacating: demographics (the state is now heavily blue) and a clear primary field (they've coalesced behind Rep. Paul Hodes). Meanwhile, the Republican field is unsettled. That's probably because everyone's waiting to see what former Sen. John Sununu will do. Considering that his dad -- John H. -- is leading the state party, no one's going to be rushing him to make up his mind. Even so, recent polling showed him losing to Hodes. A stronger Republican candidate could potentially make this a race. Of course, if things are going badly for Democrats and President Obama in 2010, Hodes will be the one taking the heat.
3. Connecticut: One of the toughest things for any incumbent to overcome is the "gone Washington" label. Sen. Christopher Dodd's decision to move his family to Iowa in 2007 and his ties to mortgage bad boy Countrywide made him vulnerable to that charge. Throw AIG on top of it all, and the attack ad basically writes itself. Dodd does have time and money to try to recover; Sen. Joe Lieberman was able to come back after a devastating primary loss in 2006. But ex-Rep. Rob Simmons -- Dodd's likely general election opponent -- is a much stronger foe than Ned Lamont.
4. Missouri: Given Obama's victories in North Carolina and Indiana, the fact that John McCain won Missouri (albeit narrowly) shows just how tough it will be for Democrats to take the outgoing Christopher (Kit) Bond's seat. Democrats are lining up behind Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, while Republicans may have a nasty primary between Rep. Roy Blunt and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman. The Steelman camp has released a poll showing Carnahan beating Blunt, who will carry the baggage of 13 years in D.C., including a stint in leadership. Carnahan, meanwhile, will be running for the first time as a national Democrat, not just a Missouri Democrat. This will be a very close race.
5. Illinois: The odds that Sen. Roland Burris is the Democratic nominee in '10 are somewhere between slim and none. He either retires or loses a primary. But that doesn't mean his party is out of the woods. The Democrat currently sitting as the front-runner for the nomination, state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, will be dogged by the GOP about loans from his family-owned bank to convicted felons with mob ties. Giannoulias allies note that those attacks didn't work against him in '06, but then again, that was before the Rod Blagojevich scandal. If GOP Rep. Mark Kirk decides to run, he'll be a worthy foe. He'll be up against some serious firepower (can this Chicago-centric White House really let this seat fall into Republican hands?), but he's also a guy who won re-election in '08 in a district that Obama carried by 23 points. Plus, with Democrats likely to target the 10th District during redistricting, Kirk may not have a seat in Congress much longer anyway.
6. Pennsylvania: Where one ranks Pennsylvania depends on how confident one feels that Sen. Arlen Specter will be the nominee. This conundrum is also what's likely keeping Democrats from jumping en masse into this race. If Specter holds off former congressman and newly departed Club For Growth President Pat Toomey, he'll be hard for Dems to beat -- though not impossible. If he loses the primary, Democrats are licking their chops to take on Toomey, arguing that he's far too conservative for the state. Heck, even Specter's likely to cut an ad in support of Toomey's opponent. Specter is an experienced campaigner who's already going hard after Toomey's ties to Wall Street. But, in the end, he may find that the Pennsylvania Republican Party he once knew, and represented, just no longer exists.
7. Ohio: In a 50-50 state like Ohio, candidates and campaigns matter more than anything. That's what makes it tough to handicap the race for this open GOP seat so early in the cycle. On paper, Republican Rob Portman has the early edge. He's got the nomination to himself, and a hefty bank account, while Democrats have a crowded primary. Democrats want this to be a proxy on George W. Bush -- Portman served as U.S. Trade Representative and OMB director in the Bush years -- hoping that any association with that administration will be as toxic in '10 as it was in '08. Midterm elections, however, are a referendum on the current occupant of the White House, not the previous one.
8. Florida: Most insiders are convinced that Gov. Charlie Crist is going to run for Senate instead of another term as governor. If so, he'd start off as the favorite to keep the seat Republican. Democrats contend that voters will be wary of rewarding Crist for leaving his job while in the middle of a fiscal crisis. Plus, it's not clear that conservatives will let Crist get a free ride to the nomination. The Democrats' only statewide official, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, took a pass at running, leaving Rep. Kendrick Meek as the current front-runner. Meek rolled up a big first-quarter fundraising total, but will he be able to raise that kind of cash if Crist is in the contest?
9. Colorado: Newly appointed Sen. Michael Bennet put up big fundraising numbers this quarter, suggesting that while he may be new to politics, he understands that money speaks louder than almost anything else. Even so, he remains an unknown and untested quantity. If the GOP had a deeper bench in the state, he'd be more vulnerable. And, while Bennet will have an official Senate pin, trying to tag him as a Washington insider or creature of the Beltway won't really work.
10. Louisiana: Sen. David Vitter's marital indiscretions may have made him the butt of many late-night jokes, but his polling numbers are stronger than a lot of incumbents on this list. He's still under 50 percent when matched up against potential Democratic challengers, and his first-quarter fundraising was less than impressive, but Vitter's got the time to try and shore up both, especially since no Democratic candidate has emerged. They may be waiting to see if Vitter gets a serious primary challenger, which could change the political calculus. At some point, however, they've got to decide if it's worth it to take the plunge. Vitter may end up getting a pass.