A look at the Senate battlefield (September edition)

In early August, I attempted an analysis of Republican prospects for winning control of the Senate. I concluded that this battle was too close to call, but suggested that the party that wins the White House in November will also have control of the Senate when it convenes in January 2013.

Much has happened since I wrote this analysis. So let’s update it.

The Republicans now hold 47 seats. They figure to lose Olympia Snowe’s seat in Maine, either to a Democrat or to independent Angus King, who probably will caucus with the Dems. But they figure to pick up Ben Nelson’s seat in Nebraska. This would leave them at 47.

Back in early August, I thought that the Republicans clearly had better than even shots of winning in Missouri and North Dakota, both of which would mean a Republican pick-up. I haven’t seen any new polls for North Dakota, but assume that Republican prospects there remain good. However, the nomination and meltdown of Todd Akin in Missouri make that race a probable win for the Dems, at least according to recent polling. This leaves the Republicans at 48 seats, needing to pick up two or three more (depending on who wins the presidency).

Republican prospects in Florida looked decent in early August. However, Republican Connie Mack now is running well behind incumbent Bill Nelson in the polls.

But meanwhile, the situation has brightened in Wisconsin, where the evergreen Tommy Thompson managed to win the Republican nomination. He holds a nice lead in this race, making it a probable pick-up, and reducing the “magic number” to one seat, or two.

The two best remaining bets for a pick-up are Montana and Virginia. The polls show both races to be toss-ups. In Montana, I give a very small edge to Republican challenger Denny Rehberg because the state is solidly conservative, and Democratic incumbent Jon Tester has not voted as the conservative he pretends to be in his campaign. In Virginia, I don’t give an edge to either candidate.

If we stop the analysis here, the battle for control of the Senate remains in equipoise. However, we need to consider (a) seats other than Maine that the Democrats may pick up and (b) seats other than those previously discussed that the Republicans may gain.

The first discussion begins with Massachusetts. Republican incumbent Scott Brown had been running even or ahead of challenger Elizabeth Warren until the Democratic convention. Since the convention, Warren has gained the lead. As time goes on, I believe Brown will pull even. This race is probably best viewed as a pure toss-up.

The Democrats are also making credible runs at picking up Republican seats in Arizona, Indiana, and Nevada. Between Massachusetts and these three states, they figure to pick up one or two seats in addition to Maine. If they do, the Republicans will need to offset these gains with wins in one or two races where they now trail.

Florida and Missouri remain possibilities. Others include Ohio, New Mexico, Hawaii, Connecticut, and Michigan. However, the Dems appear to have decent leads (5 to 10 points, more in Hawaii) in all of these races except for Connecticut. And I’m not yet ready to invest much hope in Republican Linda McMahon’s campaign in a state this Democrat-friendly, paricularly since the polls I’ve seen pre-date the Democratic convention.

In sum, the Democrats look to have a small edge in the battle to retain control of the Senate. But the Republicans continue to have a clear path to control — one that probably involves running a fairly small table of true toss-up races (Montana, Virginia, and Massachusetts).

JOHN adds: For what it’s worth, a Republican senator whom I admire very much was in town a week or so ago, and commented that he thinks the GOP is on track to win 52 seats. That count assumed that the Democrats will succeed in holding Claire McCaskill’s seat against their chosen opponent, the goofy Todd Akin.