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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.

Although Senate contests are influenced less by the top of the ticket than House races are, under a scenario where the Democrats hold a majority of one to three seats, a victory by President Barack Obama would go a long way, especially in some of the open-seat races the party must defend. Obama’s success against presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney could prove particularly crucial in Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Those holds, plus flipping seats in Maine and Massachusetts, would allow for the possibility of losses in Nebraska, North Dakota and Missouri. The party is still optimistic in North Dakota and hopeful in Missouri, but Nebraska is likely out of reach. Still, by losing only three seats and picking up two, Democrats would have a 52-48 majority, a net loss of only one seat.

That scenario would require Montana Sen. Jon Tester’s (D) fundraising and advertising strategy to keep pace with the outside spending assisting Rep. Denny Rehberg (R). Tester has received outside help of his own, but he’s also running in a state Obama has no chance of winning.

This outcome would also require former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) to win what will no doubt be a tight race with George Allen (R), a former governor and Senator, and necessitate Wisconsin Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) to win a state in political upheaval after the failed recall of Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Baldwin won’t know her opponent until the Aug. 14 GOP primary.

Thus far, Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Bill Nelson (Fla.) are favored in their respective presidential tossup states. To keep that edge, they’ll need to withstand heavy outside spending that will flood the airwaves in both states. Nelson’s $10.8 million gives him a big advantage in prohibitively expensive Florida over his likely opponent, Rep. Connie Mack IV (R), whose fundraising has so far been dwarfed in comparison.

In the Maine contest, the widely held assumption is that former Gov. Angus King (I) will ultimately caucus with Democrats. King, the favorite in the race to succeed Snowe, told Roll Call over the weekend that he has not spoken with anyone in Democratic leadership.

Assuming Maine is in their column, Democrats also need Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren (D) to defeat Sen. Scott Brown, perhaps the only Republican who could win Massachusetts with Obama on the ticket. Both candidates are raising huge sums of money and, should she win, Warren will have translated that into winning over enough of the working-class Democrats capable of voting for Brown.

Among the Democrats’ top three pickup opportunities, Nevada is probably the most difficult. It will be far more competitive for Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) if Obama’s margin doesn’t fall too far from his 12-point win in 2008. But Democrats could hold the Senate under this scenario even with a victory for Sen. Dean Heller (R).

Democrats are expected to hold Obama’s native Hawaii and come up short in Indiana and Arizona, but those contests are unlikely to affect their ability to hold the Senate majority.

Scenario 2: Republicans Gain

Republicans entered this election cycle as favorites to win the Senate, and their chances grew in the opening months of the 112th Congress as Democrats in swing states opted for retirement.

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