Leading up to the 2012 election cycle, many analysts predicted Republicans would seize a Senate majority with relative ease. The math is heavily tilted in their favor: Of the 33 seats up for grabs, 23 are controlled by Democrats. The GOP needs to net four seats to guarantee control of Congress' upper chamber. If Mitt Romney wins the presidency, a net of three seats would hand Republicans an effective majority, as Vice President Ryan would act as the tie-breaker. But a few funny things happened on the way to 51 seats. Safe incumbent Olympia Snowe of Maine decided to retire -- unexpectedly handing Democrats a plum pick-up opportunity -- and a deeply vulnerable and unpopular Democratic Senator in Missouri managed to essentially choose her opponent, who promptly melted down. So where do things stand roughly 50 days out from the election? I recently spoke with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell about how he sees the landscape shaping up. In short, it's a pure toss-up with numerous contingencies that could alter the picture in either direction:
Of the four Republican-held seats Democrats are targeting, McConnell says "I don't think we're going to lose a single seat that we currently hold." That's optimistic, and certainly possible, but is it probable? Another senior Republican source tells me the party is feeling pretty good about Nevada and Indiana, although neither race is a sure bet. In the Silver State, Sen. Dean Heller is running a strong race against Rep. Shelley Berkley, whose ethics issues have dogged her for months. And in Hoosierland, some polls have shown Democrat Joe Donnelly in a virtual dead heat with State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who beat incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar in the Republican primary. While that campaign is close, Mitt Romney is expected to carry Indiana fairly comfortably this year (Obama narrowly won the state four years ago). Mike Pence also holds a commanding lead in the state's gubernatorial race. These ticket dynamics will work in Mourdock's favor. The real potential trouble for Republicans is in New England. In Massachusetts, Sen. Scott Brown has held a steady but small lead over challenger Elizabeth Warren, whose inability to break through has worried some Bay State Democrats. (One new poll puts Warren ahead). Warren seems to have weathered the storm involving her apparent fabrication of an ethnic background, although unhelpful details continue to crop up. In Maine, popular former governor Angus King is running as an independent, but it's clear to all involved that he would caucus with Democrats if elected. National Democrats are basically staying out of the race, much to the chagrin of the actual Democratic nominee, liberal Cynthia Dill. The NRSC is spending money to boost both GOP candidate Charlie Summers, a former Snowe aide, as well as Dill. The strategy is to push some loyal Democrats away from King, creating a true three-way dynamic. Maine's Republican Governor Paul LePage won his 2010 race thanks to the center-left coalition splitting its support between two candidates. As much as conservatives would like to believe McConnell's sunny prediction, I think it's fair to assume that at least one of the Northeastern seats will fall into Democrats' hands, pushing the number of necessary off-setting pick-ups to five. Can the GOP get there?
Nebraska and North Dakota - Barring an unforeseen development, another conservative, pro-life woman will arrive in the US Senate next year. Her name is Deb Fischer, and she's leading former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey by double digits in the contest to fill Ben Nelson's soon-to-be vacant seat. North Dakota was initially expected to be to a slam dunk for the GOP, but the strong candidacy of Heidi Heitkamp has complicated matters. Polls are close, and Republicans will end up spending more money than they'd expected to flip the seat being vacated by Sen. Kent Conrad. "[Heitkamp] has been a good candidate for them," a Republican source tells me, emphasizing that the party expects to work hard, expend major resources, and win the race.
Montana - Sen. Jon Tester is hanging on by a thread as he faces a stiff challenge from Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg in Big Sky country. Several polls show Rehberg slightly ahead, others show the opposite. Republicans believe this race is eminently winnable for the GOP. Tester is personally popular in Montana, a light red state that John McCain carried by mid-single digits in 2008, but the president's popularity is now in tatters; Republicans are linking Tester to Obama and his least popular policies. It's going to be a close one -- will the Senator's brand survive, or will Obama's anti-coattails do Tester in?
Wisconsin - A seat that wasn't even on the board early last year now appears headed for a Republican takeover. Three factors have changed the complexion of this race. First, Sen. Herb Kohl retired, setting up a potentially competitive race. Then, following a year of political upheaval in the Badger State, Republicans nominated popular former Gov. Tommy Thompson, while Democrats nominated Madison liberal Tammy Baldwin. Both outcomes favor the GOP. Thompson remains popular and has universal name recognition. Baldwin is a product of the uber-Left Madison set. President Obama has a very small lead in the state, but it's currently in play on the presidential level. Obama is very unlikely to even approach his blowout Wisconsin victory margin of 2008, suggesting that his coattails (if he wins) would be far less potent. Thompson is favored to take the seat. Polls show the Republican leading by five to eleven points.
Virginia - The race between fromer Sen. George Allen and former Gov. Tim Kaine has been deadlocked for months. Many observers believe the fate of this seat (Sen. Jim Webb is retiring after one term) will rest on the presidential result in the Commonwealth. I tend to agree.
Connecticut - Connecticut? Having lost her Senate bid in 2010, Linda McMahon has retooled her approach, and sits slightly ahead of Democrat Chris Murphy according to several recent polls. Questions continue to swirl regarding a possible sweetheart mortgage deal Murphy received several years ago -- a storyline that isn't helpful to Democrats, especially in light of Murphy's checkered past. (He defaulted on a previous mortgage after failing to make several payments). Special real estate perks also raise the spectre of former Sen. Chris Dodd, whose tarnished ethical reputation drove him into retirement prior to the '10 cycle. Nevertheless, the voters of Connecticut still decided to send Democrat Richard Blumenthal -- a man who lied about having served in Vietnam -- to the Senate in Dodd's place. It's a tough state for Republicans; even though Obama's appeal has spiraled downward there, he'll still win comfortably enough to provide down-ticket Dems with an added boost.
Ohio and Florida - The Republican Senate candidates in these key swing states are both running behind Mitt Romney in the polls. Republicans still say both races are winnable, but Josh Mandel (OH) and Connie Mack (FL) have their work cut out for them.
New Mexico and Hawaii - Strong female GOP candidates are the only factors keeping either of these races remotely close. Former Rep. Heather Wilson is running a solid race in the Southwest, and former Gov. Linda Lingle has a pretty robust brand on the islands. Still, neither race is quite tight enough to justify NRSC spending, which is indicative of their long-shot status. McConnell thinks outside groups could make up the difference cash-wise, but party strategists have clearly decided to place these two states are on the back-burner.
Missouri - This is the race that has Republicans spitting nails. Claire McCaskill is exceptionally unpopular and should be a prime target for defeat. But after Democrats spent $2 million successfully manipulating GOP primary voters into backing Todd Akin, he did precisely what they were hoping for: He blew himself up. The final deadline for Akin to leave the race is September 25, but he remains steadfast in his insistence that he isn't going anywhere -- even though he's losing and virtually out of money. "McCaskill still hasn't even begun to litigate the rape comments yet. She's waiting until September 25 passes," one GOP operative notes, adding that internal polling indicates that "a cardboard box" stands a better chance of beating McCaskill than Akin. Missouri should be on the top three pick-up list for Republicans, but as things are, McCaskill's seat looks like an improbable and potentially costly Democrat hold. There's no getting around it: Todd Akin's indefensible comments and subsequent decisions could very well cost Republicans a Senate majority, and all the policy implications therein.
Bottom line - Based purely on current polls and my general sense of the state of play-- informed by several discussions with key players -- I think it's entirely reasonable to expect Republicans to flip roughly four seats (let's say NE, ND, WI and either MT or VA), while Democrats snag one (ME). That outcome would result in a 50-50 Senate split. If Scott Brown's lead falters, and both New England seats change from red to blue, the GOP's task becomes significantly harder, but not impossible. Republicans could win those top three contests, then take both Montana and Virginia, then pull off a quasi-surprise in Connecticut or elsewhere. But running the table in other close races would be a tall order, especially if Obama holds the presidency. I'd say it's a relatively safe bet that the US Senate will be either evenly divided, or 51-49 in either direction come 2013.