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Until about 10 days ago, I agreed with the conventional wisdom that control of the House of Representatives was up for grabs this fall but that Republicans had yet to put the Senate into play. I no longer believe that.
The chances that the next Senate will have a Republican majority are not great, but even three months ago there were not enough Senate seats in play to imagine a Republican gain of 10 seats. Now there are, with 11 Democratic seats definitely competitive.
But at the same time that Republican prospects have brightened overall, they suddenly look less bright than previously in at least a couple of states: Nevada and Illinois.
Just a few months ago, Democratic nominees Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada and Illinois state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias looked like sure losers in their races, but their candidacies have been resuscitated by their GOP opponents.
Even Republican political operatives acknowledge privately that former Nevada state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle has been an even worse candidate than they had thought. And while recent polling in the Silver State may overstate Reids prospects in the fall, it seems clear that the contest has evolved from being purely a referendum on Reid and President Barack Obama to being a choice between Reid and Angle.
Thats a far less advantageous position for the challenger and a far better one for Reid. Angles prospects have now slipped from being a clear favorite to only 50-50.
Reid remains a political basket case, but he certainly has a fighting chance in a contest of two unappealing nominees. And Angle has the benefit of a Republican wind at her back that could still turn into a gale-force wind. Republicans might want to ship Angle out of the country for a few months to improve her prospects.
In Illinois, polls suggest the race remains tight, but Republican Rep. Mark Kirks reputation has been hurt, creating another contest between two damaged candidates. This race, as one political wag noted, is now the crook versus the liar.
Thats an improvement for Giannoulias, whose own reputation with voters has been poor for months and who has the added problem of a damaged Democratic brand in Illinois.
If Kirk has indeed stopped the bleeding, as some Republicans insist, he may be able to take advantage of a favorable political environment. But this race could be competitive all the way to Election Day, a disappointing fact for Republican strategists who once expected Kirk to put the race away sooner rather than later.
Giannoulias weak fundraising is a disappointment, of course, since it reflects a lack of Democratic enthusiasm for him. And while Obama is helping him raise the money he needs to run a competitive race, that wont say much about the Senate nominees fundamental appeal.