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Sizing Up the 2010 Senate Contests in the Summer of 2009

Republicans still lack a top-tier challenger to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and Sen. John Ensign’s (R-Nev.) recent personal troubles certainly don’t boost Republican prospects next year. Still, as the president’s point man in the Senate, Reid simply makes himself a juicy target in the midterm elections.

Democrats have potential opportunities in North Carolina and Louisiana, but they still have work to do in both. The party has not yet recruited a serious threat to Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), and while Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) is widely rumored to be leaning toward a challenge to Sen. David Vitter (R), the state’s fundamentals and the midterm environment raise questions about the viability of the challenge.

Republicans have three longer-shot opportunities that shouldn’t yet be completely discounted — Arkansas, Colorado and Pennsylvania — though in each case the Democratic incumbent has a considerable advantage. Pennsylvania, in particular, is intriguing, since a truly nasty Democratic primary seems likely and the GOP nominee, former Rep. Pat Toomey, is not without appeal.

Eleven Republican and 12 Democratic Senate seats up next year now look safe. But if Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) decides to run for the Senate, as some GOP insiders now believe he will, another of those safe Democratic seats suddenly becomes a tossup.

Republicans would be wise not to celebrate just yet. Their diminished vulnerability is, in part, the result of Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter’s leaving the GOP, which cost them a seat that they probably were going to lose next year. And with Democrats controlling 60 of the Senate’s 100 seats going into next year’s elections, any additional Republican losses would add to the party’s existing woes.

The widely expected resignation of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) in the fall, which will lead to a special election in the first half of 2010, also creates some uncertainty. While Republicans will have a strong nominee and the NRSC will spend what it takes to hold the seat, the special election is at least a major distraction for the national GOP.

If politics is about momentum and message, then the outlook for ’10 has changed considerably over the past couple of months. Democrats still have a wealth of opportunities and some advantages, but Republicans now have momentum and an improving issue mix. For the first time this cycle, I can imagine a scenario where Democrats do not gain Senate seats in 2010.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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