The four Senate races that are the purest tossups are currently in Wisconsin, Montana, Virginia and Nevada where Rep. Tammy Baldwin (above), Sen. Jon Tester, ex-Sen. George Allen and Rep. Shelley Berkley are running, respectively.
If those five races flip parties, Republicans would net one seat, getting the GOP to 48 seats in the Senate. The party would then need two more to get to 50 and three more to get to 51 and an absolute majority.
Four other states seem extremely competitive: Democratic-held seats in Montana, Virginia and Wisconsin, along with a GOP-held seat in Nevada.
Recent polling in Montana is contradictory. But some Republican insiders privately admit that freshman Democratic Sen. Jon Tester is running the best re-election race in the country, and they are less than optimistic about GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg’s ability to take the seat from him. Still, the race is a tossup.
Virginia continues to look tight. Republican George Allen easily won his party’s nomination to face Democrat Tim Kaine, but many savvy observers predict that Kaine will run slightly ahead of Obama in the state, so the strength of the president and Mitt Romney could be a key factor in which nominee wins the Old Dominion’s Senate seat.
The Wisconsin Senate race also looks very competitive. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson maintains a lead over Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) in polls, but it’s far from clear that Thompson will be the GOP nominee or that Baldwin can’t overtake him. The Republican race is crowded, and Baldwin’s appeal in the statewide race is uncertain.
The fourth competitive race is in Nevada, where appointed Sen. Dean Heller (R) and Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) are already on TV. Berkley is a strong, aggressive fundraiser and campaigner, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will likely pull out the stops to take over the seat for his party. A close presidential race is expected there. The question is whether Berkley can appeal to voters outside her Las Vegas-based district.
Another race, in New Mexico, is worth watching because former Rep. Heather Wilson (R) has the potential to appeal to some Democrats and to independent voters. But she starts as a slight underdog against Rep. Martin Heinrich (D), given the state’s generally Democratic bent and the expected strength of Obama in the state. Polling has her behind.
A handful of second-tier or long-shot races continue to be worth watching because of the candidates or state fundamentals. The list includes Democratic-held seats in Ohio, Florida and Hawaii, and Republican-held seats in Arizona and Indiana. But at this point, the incumbent’s party has the advantage in each.
If voters decide they want change and blame the president for the status quo, Democratic Senate candidates in competitive races could well receive a shock that they are not now expecting. But it probably won’t be until after the presidential nominating conventions that the final direction of the election cycle starts to become clear. If and when that happens, the outlook for the Senate will start to clear up as well.
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