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The expanding Senate playing field

As we sat down to rank which ten Senate races are most likely to flip party control on November 2, it became immediately clear that our Line wasn't big enough.

The simple truth is that over the past six to nine months, the Senate playing field has expanded to the point where there are now (at least) 15 races where a party switch is a real possibility -- if not a probability.

Most of that expansion has benefited Republicans, who have effectively taken advantage of a national playing field tilted in their favor to take previously non-competitive races like Washington and Wisconsin and put them on the target list.

Friday Line

Democrats have a few more opportunities as well -- most notably in Kentucky where ophthalmologist Rand Paul's (R) uneven campaign has created an opening for state Attorney General Jack Conway. (An independent poll released Thursday showed the two in a statistical dead heat.)

All told, the Cook Political Report now rates a whopping 18 races as either likely to switch, leaning switch or straight tossups. The Rothenberg Political Report ranks 15 races with the potential to switch sides.

With all of that in mind, we are expanding the Senate Line from 10 to 15 races in an attempt to bring Fixistas the most accurate picture of the competitive contests this fall. (And, even in the expanded Line some real races like New Hampshire's open seat or Louisiana Sen. David Vitter's re-election race don't make the cut.)

Our Line is below. Have thoughts of your own? The comments section awaits.

To the Line!

15. California (Democratic-controlled): Republicans have a serious (and well-funded) nominee in former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. But, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) is a powerhouse in her own right, having survived three tough election battles. (Boxer was also sitting on $11 million cash on hand at the end of June.) The ad wars have yet to begin in earnest, but with recent polling showing Fiorina leading Boxer by a significant amount among independents, this is going to be a close one. (Previous ranking: N/A)

14. Kentucky (Republican controlled): Ophthalmologist Rand Paul (R) has hit into a few potholes, including recently disrespecting the "Fancy Farm" event that is sacred in Kentucky politics. But next to Nevada GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle's struggles, Paul's political sins seem relatively minor. Look for Democrats to press Paul on whether supports the federal legislative largesse that is the lifeblood of economically distressed areas in eastern Kentucky. (Legendary columnist Al Cross laid out Paul's problems in that region expertly.) If Paul plays it smart and keeps his sometimes-unusual ideology in check, this should be a hold for the GOP in such a conservative state. (Previous ranking: N/A)

13. Washington (D): The results of Tuesday night's primary were a good indication of how close the race between Sen. Patty Murray (D) and former state Sen. Dino Rossi (R) this fall is likely to be. Add up all of the votes cast for Republicans on Tuesday and you get 49.8 percent; add up the Democratic votes and you get 48.4 percent. (Thank you "First Read"!) Internal polling on both sides affirms that this is a straight toss up. (Previous ranking: N/A)

12. Wisconsin (D): Republicans may be more bullish about Wisconsin -- and Oshkosh businessman Ron Johnson (R) -- than about any other race in the country. Johnson drew rave reviews during a sitdown with the Cook Political Report -- no easy graders -- and the struggling Wisconsin economy makes the state ripe for a surprise. But, Sen. Russ Feingold (D) is a very skilled politician who understands the danger he faces and won't go down easily. (Previous ranking: N/A)

11. Colorado (D): Appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (D) survived a surprisingly strong primary challenge in the former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoffearlier this month and watched as the GOP establishment pick -- former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton -- lost to Weld County prosecutor Ken Buck. Democrats could barely contain their glee at the general election matchup and quickly began the work of painting Buck as too conservative for the state. Smart state Democrats, however, know that Buck is an able candidate who might actually be more problematic for Bennet in an outsider-favored year like this one. (Previous ranking: N/A)

10. Missouri (R): Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D) released a sharp new ad this week, using the words of the news media (damn media!) to paint Rep. Roy Blunt (R) as an architect of the Trouble Asset Relief Program (TARP), a.k.a. the 2008 bank bailout. Meanwhile, Blunt's campaign stumbled with its own web ad, pulling it after receiving criticism for using an image of Ground Zero. The Show Me State has moved against President Obama but Carnahan is a quality candidate likely to keep the race close. (Previous ranking: 9)

9. Ohio (R): This is one of the quintessential tests of the Democrats' strategy of tying Republican candidates to former President George W. Bush. Put plainly, if it works here, it will work elsewhere. That's because Ohio is such a key swing state and, his Bush ties aside, former Rep. Rob Portman (R) is clearly the superior candidate to Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D). (Previous ranking: 8)

8. Nevada (D): Even Republicans acknowledge that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has run a flawless campaign since former state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle emerged as the surprise GOP nominee in June. Reid has pummeled Angle for her controversial stances on just about everything, a strategy aided by the Republican nominee's not-ready-for-primetime gaffes on the campaign trail. And yet, the most recent, reliable independent poll on the race shows Reid at 46 percent to Angle's 44 percent. Reid almost certainly has a vote ceiling right around where he is today. The question is whether that will be enough in a field with a variety of third-party candidates and a "none of the above" option. (Previous ranking: 7)

7. Florida (R): It's an open secret -- as we wrote earlier this week -- that most establishment Democrats believe their best chance of winning this seat in the fall rests with Gov. Charlie Crist who is running as an independent. Crist has given every indication he would caucus with Democrats if elected and a recent Quinnipiac poll showed him leading a three-way race. Former state House Speaker Marco Rubio (R) and likely Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek (D) will have something to say about that over the next two and a half months, however. (Previous ranking: 10)

6. Illinois (D): Much like former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), the Illinois Senate race has gone to hell and back only to end up pretty much right where it started (give or take a conviction). Both state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) and Rep. Mark Kirk (R) have major baggage; Giannoulias carries the collapse of his family's bank, Kirk the controversy over his misrepresentation of his military record. But, Kirk has the benefits of a $3 million cash on hand advantage and a national environment that favors his party. Even with President Obama's personal involvement in the race, Democratic prospects here aren't what they should be. (Previous ranking: 6)

5. Pennsylvania (D): A series of polls released in recent days show former Rep. Pat Toomey (R) opening up a steady single digit lead over Rep. Joe Sestak (D). (It's telling that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee felt compelled to release an internal survey of its own that showed Toomey at 46 percent to Sestak's 44 percent.)This is a race where the two parties are far apart; Republicans see it moving firmly in their direction while Democrats note that they have only begun to hit Toomey on his work as a derivatives trader. (Previous ranking: 5)

4. Delaware (D): Nobody is disputing that both Rep. Mike Castle (R) and New Castle County Executive Chris Coons (D) are both capable candidates. But, Castle has a moderate image and a track record of winning in a blue state that's going to be hard for Coons to overcome. Coons' campaign has, of late, started showing a willingness to engage, which should be taken as a good sign for Democrats. And, Delaware's clear Democratic lean should help keep it close. (Previous ranking: 2)

3. Indiana (D): Former Sen. Dan Coats (R) suffers from a similar problem afflicting several GOP candidates in top races: a connection to the GOP's less-than-attractive past. (In addition to serving in the Senate during the 1990s, Coats worked as a lobbyist.) What makes this race different is that it is being run in Indiana. Despite voting for President Obama in 2008, the Hoosier State seems to have swung hard back into the Republican column. Democrats tout Rep. Brad Ellsworth's (D) conservative credentials but he voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the stimulus and the Democratic health care bill. All are liabilities in this sort of electoral environment. (Previous ranking: 3)

2. Arkansas (D): Comeback kid Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) managed to eke out a win in her runoff race against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter but her path to victory in the fall is becoming less and less clear. In a state where President Obama is deeply unpopular, and in an environment that's punishing for incumbents, what was a tough race to begin with is now looking like a foregone conclusion. A Reuters/Ipsos poll last month showed Lincoln trailing Rep. John Boozman (R) by 19 points. (Previous ranking: 4)

1. North Dakota (D): Three words: Stairway to Hoeven. (Previous ranking: 1)

With Aaron Blake and Felicia Sonmez

By Chris Cillizza  | August 20, 2010; 10:45 AM ET
Categories:  The Line  
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