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Senate Control Hangs in the Balance

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President Barack Obama has his sights set on a second win in Florida in 2012. Should Obama run a strong Sunshine State campaign, it could boost Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, the only Democrat left still holding statewide office. That’s one reason Obama made Florida one of his first campaign stops. Voters should expect to see the two of them together again.

Correction Appended

First-quarter fundraising reports due Friday are the first stretch of the 2012 Senate horse race, offering an early indication of who is jumping into the lead and, in general, how the 2012 Senate landscape is shaping up when control of the chamber is on the line.

Senate candidates such as Rep. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) and former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert (R) could not wait to announce raising an eye-popping $1.1 million each in the first three months of the year, giving them instant edges on their competitors and putting strong initial stamps on their races. Vulnerable Republican incumbents such as Republican Sens. Dick Lugar (Ind.) and Scott Brown (Mass.) are bolstering their campaign coffers with strong fundraising as well.

As the Senate landscape begins to form more than three months into the cycle, just one competitive Senate race is set in stone.

Montana, where Democratic Sen. Jon Tester will face Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg in a marquee matchup, is the lone state in which both parties’ preferred candidates are in the race and no primary is expected, so they are virtually assured of facing off in the general.

Beyond the Big Sky State, the Senate field remains largely in flux. A few races are beginning to gel, though all but Montana could look drastically different based on who wins the primary. Or, as is the case in many more states, it is still too early to project who the major players will be.

Democrats have 23 seats to defend this cycle as the party clings to a three-seat Senate majority. Five Democrats, including Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), have already announced retirements, with at least four of those seats possible Republican pickup opportunities. And it is not a foregone conclusion that two more Democratic Senators, Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Herb Kohl (Wis.), will run.

Roll Call Politics has eight Senate races listed as Tossups. Six are Democrat-held seats, including the open-seat races in New Mexico and Virginia, as well as the re-election bids of Tester in Montana and Sen. Claire McCaskill in Missouri, both in their first terms.

The numbers are so lopsided against Democrats thanks to the party’s exceptional success in the 2006 cycle, including knocking off Republican incumbents in states such as Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Montana. At this time in 2005, political handicappers had yet to believe the GOP’s recently increased edge in the Senate was truly in jeopardy, and Montana was not on anyone’s map of potentially competitive races.

Rehberg’s February announcement put the early spotlight squarely on the Big Sky State, where in 2006 Tester defeated an ethics-plagued Republican incumbent. This time he is up against a six-term Congressman and Appropriations cardinal who is among Montana’s best-known politicians in part because as an at-large Member he is elected statewide.

Montana has a history of electing Democratic Senators, but it has voted for a Democratic presidential nominee just once since 1964. And a mid-March independent poll showing the race tied crystallized its place among the most competitive races of the cycle.

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