GOP Still Shy of Races in Play to Win Majority

May 18, 2010 · 3:00 PM EDT

With less than six months until voters go to the polls, almost all of the most vulnerable Senate seats this cycle are in Democratic hands — creating an unexpected wealth of opportunities for the GOP, which just 12 months ago was headed for additional Senate losses.

But the change in the national environment, combined with an angry electorate and a jobless economic recovery, has given Republicans the shot in the arm they needed, as well as a growing list of Senate takeover opportunities.

Not all opportunities are equal, however, and there are a few clear “tiers of opportunity” for the two parties.

Tier 1: Already Gone

Two Democratic open Senate seats already appear certain to migrate over to the GOP column — the seats of retiring Sen. Byron Dorgan (N.D.) and appointed Sen. Ted Kaufman (Del.). North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven (R) will win Dorgan’s seat, while Rep. Mike Castle (R), a former governor, looks like the clear favorite over New Castle County Executive Chris Coons (D) in the First State.

Coons appears to be a serious opponent for Castle, but the Republican is an icon in the Democratic state. Hoeven is so popular in his state that Democrats couldn’t find a top-tier challenger.

Tier 2: More Gone Than Not

Two Democratic incumbents occupy the next tier: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and Senate Agriculture Chairman Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), though for different reasons.

Reid’s GOP opponents aren’t all that intimidating, and Arkansas has been slow to embrace Republicans the way the rest of the South has. But Reid’s and Lincoln’s poll numbers have been so bad for so long that it’s hard to see either surviving, though Lincoln is favored to turn back a primary challenge on her left from Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.

Since elections tend to be referendums on incumbents — in this case Reid, Lincoln and President Barack Obama — both Senate races clearly favor the eventual Republican nominees, whomever they will be.

Tier 3: Tossups, but More Likely Than Not to Flip

This is the disastrous category for Democrats, since a year ago most of these seats looked better than even money to stay in Democratic hands. No more, however.

A nasty Democratic primary in Pennsylvania is just one of the things helping former Rep. Pat Toomey (R), who should begin the general election with a slight advantage over either party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter or his Democratic primary challenger, Rep. Joe Sestak. The state’s older population, its blue-collar voters, particularly in Western Pennsylvania, and long-term cyclical trends in the state should help Toomey and the GOP generally.

Appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) has a competitive primary and then is likely to face a formidable GOP opponent, probably former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton. Given the year, Democrats will have trouble holding the seat.

In Illinois, Rep. Mark Kirk (R) has a slight advantage over state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D), who is getting plenty of bad ink for the failure of his family’s bank. And in New Hampshire, Rep. Paul Hodes (D) will be at a disadvantage against either former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte or businessman Bill Binnie, the two Republicans most likely to win the Senate nomination in the Granite State.

A year ago, Ohio Republican Senate hopeful Rob Portman looked like an easy target because of his years as Office of Management and Budget director and U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush, but the country appears to have moved on. This year’s elections are more likely to be about Obama than Bush. That, combined with resource-draining Democratic primary that nominated Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, who won’t be able to take advantage of Portman’s vulnerabilities, suggests that Ohio is tipping toward the GOP.

Missouri is similar to Ohio. Rep. Roy Blunt looks like the poster child for Washington, D.C., Republicans, but that’s not nearly as bad a thing now as it was a dozen months ago. Secretary of State Robin Carnahan is a liberal Democrat in a conservative state that went for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential election. Like the other states in this tier, the race is a tossup, but the advantage goes to the Republican.

Finally, Sen. Evan Bayh’s (D-Ind.) retirement gives the GOP a great opportunity in a midterm election year. Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D) probably is the better candidate in the race, but former Sen. Dan Coats (R) has the partisan advantage.

Tier 4: True Tossup

Ok, let’s be honest. Nobody is quite sure what the general election will look like if libertarian Rand Paul wins the Republican nomination in Kentucky, a GOP-held open seat that is very much in play.

It’s an open question whether Paul can win the general election. Some think he can, while others think he’s too extreme. Right now, all that is clear is that if Secretary of State Trey Grayson wins the GOP primary, he will become the favorite in November against either Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo (D) or Secretary of State Jack Conway (D). But the Republican primary is very much in doubt.

Tier 5: Potentially Flippable, but Not Leaning That Way Yet

There are plenty of races to keep your eye on, but so far none of them have made the tossup category. Sen. Barbara Boxer’s (D-Calif.) numbers are soft, and former Rep. Tom Campbell could give her a serious race if he is the GOP nominee.

Democratic incumbents in Washington (Sen. Patty Murray) and Wisconsin (Sen. Russ Feingold) could also face stiff challenges, and if Dino Rossi jumps into the Washington contest, that race would immediately move up a tier or two.

Democrats hope that Florida has become a serious opportunity for them now that the race is a three-way contest that includes Gov. Charlie Crist as an Independent.

And they haven’t given up hope completely about North Carolina or Louisiana, though both races are much further down on the list. The same goes for Connecticut for the GOP, which hopes that frontrunner Attorney General Richard Blumenthal proves to be a much weaker candidate than Democrats assume. [This column was written before the New York Times' story about Blumenthal's service during Vietnam.]