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Reading the Tea Leaves: How the Senate Could Look

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester (above) is running a strong campaign but is facing a tough challenger in Rep. Denny Rehberg.

The next few months will be stressful for Senate strategists.

With less than four months to go, the fate of the Senate majority is maddeningly  unknown — and likely to stay that way through Election Day. With multiple outcomes possible on Nov. 6, three scenarios appear most realistic: Democrats hold the Senate with a small majority, Republicans flip the chamber and win a narrow majority, or the parties split the Senate with 50 seats apiece and control is decided by the winner of the White House and his vice president’s tie-breaking vote.

With their current 53-47 majority, Democrats can withstand a net loss of only two seats if they are to retain control of the chamber, regardless of whether President Barack Obama or presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney emerges victorious in the presidential race.

“The outcome of the presidency is part of the overall fabric of keeping the Senate,” said J.B. Poersch, a veteran Democratic Senate strategist. “But I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s the most critical factor.”

The battle for the Senate will play out over a cross-section of states, some highly competitive at the presidential level and others that will likely see very little of Obama or Romney. While the top of the ticket undoubtedly affects them, Senate races are largely individualized contests swayed by the quality of the candidates and their campaigns and the metrics of the state.

The Democratic majority is remarkably less tenuous than it was entering this cycle, which followed a net gain of seven seats for Republicans in 2010. Neither party can confidently put more than a couple of competitive seats in their column just yet. Democrats are defending 23 seats to just 10 for Republicans, but the competitive landscape at this point is limited to a maximum of 15 states, including a few that are likely out of reach for the challenging party.

The playing field will mature by summer’s end, when contests could move down the competitive scale as they are more clearly defined and spending picks up. Republican nominees still haven’t been picked in Wisconsin or Missouri, two states critical to the majority.

Scenario 1: Democrats Hold

Democrats don’t need everything to go their way over the next few months to hold the Senate majority, although it would help.

The party faces a potentially daunting task. But it also begins with a 53-47 edge and therefore breathing room for a few losses, some of which are expected. In fact, the Democrats’ pickup opportunities have increased over the course of the cycle, with Sen. Olympia Snowe’s (R-Maine) surprising decision to retire altering a conventional wisdom that had previously given them a slim chance of holding their majority.

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