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Sizing Up the Top Senate Races

Sen. Bill Nelson The Florida Senate race has changed greatly now that Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-Fla.-14) has become a candidate.   Against a weak field of Republican contenders that included former Interim Sen. George LeMieux and ex-state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, two-term incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D) was poised for a strong run to re-election.  With Mack in the race, such is not the case.  Already, national polls show this race closing to low single-digits.
Outlook Rate the race as Lean Democratic, but will likely move toward the Toss-Up column when the campaign begins in earnest.
Open Seat –
Sen. Daniel Akaka Retiring This is another Senate race that looked to be safely in the Democratic column, but a new Republican entry has fundamentally changed the race.   Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii-2) and former Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii-2) are battling for the Democratic nomination.  Prior to ex-Gov. Linda Lingle (R) becoming a candidate, the eventual winner of the Hirono-Case contest appeared to be a lock for the seat in the general election.  As in Florida, recent polling now shows the general election to be evolving into a competitive race.  The Democrats are still in the superior position, but their hold on the seat is more tenuous.  Lingle makes this open seat campaign a race.  Outlook Lean Democratic.
Sen. Scott Brown  Democrats have coalesced around former Obama administration consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren, who is appearing to excite the substantial Democratic base in the state.   Incumbent Scott Brown’s (R) approval ratings are among the best of any senator seeking re-election, but the state’s voter history clearly cuts against him in a full-turnout presidential year election.  With Obama leading the Democratic ticket, Warren finds herself in position to unseat Sen. Brown.  Outlook Pure Toss-Up.
Sen. Claire McCaskill  Sen. McCaskill is clearly one of the most vulnerable Democrats standing for re-election.   Although the Republican field (Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.-2); former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman; retired businessman John Brunner) appears to be relatively weak, McCaskill is even or trails slightly in all polling match-ups.  The eventual Republican presidential nominee will more than likely carry Missouri against the president, adding further baggage to McCaskill’s re-election chances.  This will be a tough race and will remain close all the way to Nov. 6.  Outlook Pure Toss-Up.

Sen. Jon Tester  Montana hosts another hotly contested campaign featuring a Democratic incumbent.   Sen. Tester was first elected in 2006, beating embattled Sen. Conrad Burns (R) by only 2,847 votes, the closest statewide result in the nation during that year.  Presently, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.-Ala.), the state’s lone member of the House of Representatives, attempts to wrest the seat back into Republican hands.  Polls again show a tight race, but Rehberg consistently clings to an early small advantage.  Republicans will likely carry the state against President Obama, and that should give Rehberg an extra push.  This is a Republican conversion opportunity, but is a very long way from being over.  Outlook Pure Toss-Up.
Open Seat –
Sen. Kent Conrad Retiring  North Dakota is the best Republican conversion opportunity in the nation.  Although the Democrats recruited their strongest possible candidate to replace Sen. Kent Conrad, former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, it will matter little. At-Large Rep. Rick Berg (R) is a lock for the Republican nomination and becomes the strongest of favorites for the general election.
Outlook Likely Republican.
Senator Current Climate Forecast
Sen. Ben Nelson The Cornhusker State is another strong Republican conversion opportunity, though beleaguered incumbent Sen. Ben Nelson is making a comeback.  Nelson began to hemorrhage politically when he supported the Obama health care legislation in return for millions of dollars in largesse for his state. Labeled the “Cornhusker Kickback,” the Nebraska voting public overwhelmingly opposed Nelson’s action.  Although the Republican primary is beginning to unravel because of intra-party attacks among the candidates, all appear to be in relatively strong position against Nelson.  The eventual GOP nominee should have the advantage against Sen. Nelson, but said edge may not be as strong as it once appeared.   Nelson has not yet formally announced for re-election, leading to increased speculation that he still could retire.  Outlook Lean Republican.
Open Seat –
Sen. Jeff Bingaman Retiring  Yet another competitive open seat in this most swing of states.  The eventual Democratic nominee, either Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.-1) or state Auditor Hector Balderas, should begin the general election as the slight favorite.   Former Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.-1), assuming she can secure the Republican nomination over Lt. Gov. John Sanchez, could be formidable in the general election. However, this race has the potential of becoming tight and possibly landing in the GOP upset category as last year’s governor’s race did, but the Democrats must be rated as early favorites.  Outlook Lean Democratic.
Appointed Sen. Dean Heller  Nevada is becoming another pure swing state, so a very tough senatorial campaign is forecast for 2012.  This will compliment an equally close presidential campaign in what could become a deciding state in the national election.   The Democrats are sure to nominate Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.1), who has racked up impressive victories in her Las Vegas congressional seat, but is untested statewide.  She could prove to be a weak candidate.  Sen. Dean Heller (R), appointed to replace the scandal-ridden John Ensign upon his resignation, will run a strong race and is no stranger to running statewide.  Before his election to Congress, Heller was the Secretary of State.  Both candidates will have plenty in the way of campaign resources.  Democrats will likely have a turnout advantage thanks to organized labor.  This race is likely to be close all the way to Election Day.  Outlook Toss-Up.
Sen. Sherrod Brown Up until the last month, it appeared the Republicans had under-recruited in terms of finding an opponent for first-term Sen. Sherrod Brown (D).  With the latest financial reports now showing that state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R) has raised more than $3.8 million, however, those fears have been somewhat assuaged.   Still, Sen. Brown, a seasoned and tough campaigner, will be difficult for the 34 year-old statewide official to dislodge.  Mandel was elected Ohio’s Treasurer in the 2010 Republican landslide.
Outlook Likely Democratic, but headed toward Lean Democratic.
Open Seat –
Sen. Jim Webb
Retiring This open seat battle sets up an epic contest featuring two candidates who have both won two previous statewide contests.  Democratic former Governor and Lt. Governor Tim Kaine, just recently the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Republican former Senator and Governor George Allen will be in Toss-up mode all the way through the general election.   Virginia, now a legitimate swing state after developing a history as being safely Republican in national elections, will be at the heart of the presidential battleground.  Allen, considering that his many gaffes that cost him re-election in 2006, needs to run a virtually perfect campaign to win.  Both candidates will be extremely well-funded.
Outlook The purest of Toss-Up elections.
Open Seat –
Sen. Herb Kohl
Retiring  Here’s another race that carries the Toss-Up mantra, at least in the beginning of the contest.  Republicans are featuring a primary election among former Gov. Tommy Thompson, ex-Rep. Mark Neumann, and state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald.  Madison Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.-2) is the consensus Democratic candidate.   Wisconsin will also be ground-zero for the presidential campaign, as its recent voting history suggests that this is a place now beginning to trend toward the Republicans.  If so, then the GOP nominee upsetting President Obama here could lead to a Republican conversion in the open Senate race, too.  The Republican field could be stronger, but Baldwin may be too liberal for Wisconsin as a whole.
Outlook Toss-Up.

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