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The Line: When a Small Loss Is Your 'Best Case Scenario'

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) is nothing if not a realist.

At a luncheon with reporters on Thursday in Washington, Ensign said the best-case scenario for his party in the fall election would be a three-seat loss.

"It would be a great night if we lost three seats," Ensign said, adding that winning back the majority in this election cycle would be "fairly miraculous."

Ensign described the 2008 election as "the toughest since Watergate" but insisted that he -- and his campaign team -- would not cede the cycle to Democrats despite the inherent challenges of the national landscape.

Ensign's argument? The Senate is the last, best chance to build a "firewall" against a President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). "Senate Republicans really will be the firewall to stopping bad legislation or having the majority come to us to modify their positions," Ensign insisted.

To that end, Ensign's stated goal is to hold 45 seats after this election, a position that would ensure his party would be able to threaten filibuster on unsatisfactory legislation (60 votes are required to end a filibuster) and leave Senate Republicans the possibility of retaking the chamber in 2010 and 2012 (a total of 36 Democratic seats are up over those two cycles, compared with 32 Republican seats).

Can Ensign meet that relatively low bar? Perhaps -- although a plausible path to 56 or 57 seats (or even 58 or 59) does exist for Democrats given the poor state of the GOP brand these days.

Below you'll find The Fix's latest rankings of the most competitive Senate races this fall. The No. 1 ranked race is the one considered most likely to switch parties.

As always, The Line is a jumping off point for a broader conversation. Offer your own thoughts on our rankings or even provide rankings of your own in the comments section.

Line Highlights

  • Moving Off The Line: Maine

  • Moving On: Mississippi

  • Moving Up: North Carolina, Oregon

  • Moving Down: Louisiana, Minnesota

To the Line!

10. Mississippi (Currently Republican): There were three races in the running for the final spot on the Line: Mississippi, Kentucky and Maine. The Magnolia State Senate race won out (or lost out, depending on your perspective) for two main reasons. First, unlike incumbents in Maine and Kentucky, Sen. Roger Wicker (R), who was appointed early this year to replace Sen. Trent Lott (R), has never been elected statewide before. Second, Mississippi has the largest black population of any state in the country (36 percent, according to the 2000 Census). Combine Wicker's inexperience as a statewide candidate with an expected massive black turnout with Obama leading the Democratic ticket, and this state starts to look like a real opportunity for Democrats. Their candidate -- former governor Ronnie Musgrove -- needs to step on the gas in terms of fundraising, but his conservative profile should allow him to win enough of the white vote to give Wicker a real run. (Previous ranking: N/A)

9. Minnesota (R): Al Franken giveth and Al Franken taketh away. After running a nearly error-free primary campaign that all but cleared the field for him, Franken has endured more than a month of negative stories that have some Democrats wondering if nominating him, which the party officially did earlier this month, might have been a mistake. The latest problem for Franken? The unearthing of a column he penned for Playboy magazine nearly a decade ago on Internet pornography, which led to Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat who backed Franken's opponent in the primary, to condemn the candidate. Not good. And Sen. Norm Coleman (R) has begun advertising with commercials that effectively paint the incumbent as a bipartisan dealmaker. All is not lost for Democrats, as there is plenty of time for Franken to regain his footing. But make no mistake: He has slipped. (Previous ranking: 7)

8. North Carolina (R): Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) knows she is in for a very tough race against state Sen. Kay Hagan (D). Witness her decision to begin running ads in recent days that tout her ability to deliver for the state -- ads that never make mention of her party affiliation or President George W. Bush. It's a sound strategy in such a difficult political environment, but you can bet Hagan and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will do their darndest to ensure every voter in the state knows Dole voted with Bush more than 90 percent of the time in her first term. Having now met Hagan in person, we can testify that she is a talented candidate and, as a woman, will be in a better position than 2002 nominee Erskine Bowles to attack Dole aggressively. (Previous ranking: 9)

7. Louisiana (Currently Democratic): Ask Democrats about the effect Obama is likely to have on the race between Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) and state Treasurer John Kennedy (R) and they insist the predicted bump in the black vote will be an unmitigated boon for Landrieu. (Roughly one-in-every-three Louisiana residents was black according to the 2000 Census, although it's not clear how much of the African American population left the state in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.) Republicans, on the other hand, believe Obama will struggle to win conservative white voters in the more rural areas of the state -- a development that will accrue to Kennedy's benefit. Who's right? The truth is probably somewhere in between, which means that this race is going to be very, very close. (Previous ranking: 6)

6. Oregon (R): Regular Fix readers know that we have long been skeptical about state House Speaker Jeff Merkley (D). But to his credit, Merkley managed to win the Democratic primary last month over activist Steve Novick and now stands as something close to an even-money bet against Sen. Gordon Smith (R). Why? Obama is a heavy favorite over John McCain in the state this fall, and Merkley will surely benefit from a huge turnout in the Portland-area for the party's nominee. Merkley also caught a break recently when John Frohnmayer, a well known name in the state expected to take votes from the Democratic nominee, dropped his third party bid. Smith is paying attention and doing everything he can to win reelection, but he faces an extremely difficult environment. (Previous ranking: 8)

5. Alaska (R): Sen. Ted Stevens (R) continues to show absolutely no sign that he is planning to do anything other than run for reelection in the fall. (Alaska's filing deadline passed earlier this month; the primaries will be held in late August.) And that's bad news for Republicans. Stevens, a legend in Alaska politics, has seen the shine taken off of his reputation over the last few years as he has found himself entangled in a pay-to-play lobbying scheme involving an Alaska energy company. Poll after poll shows the incumbent trailing Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a well-known name in the state who is taking the fight to Stevens by releasing plans on energy and ethics aimed at framing the parameters of the debate in the Democrat's favor. Begich isn't the best Democrat running for Senate this cycle, but he is plenty good enough unless Stevens can change the dynamic of the race. (Previous ranking: 5)

4. New Hampshire (R): This race has remained largely static over the last month and could stay that way for a while. Former governor Jeanne Shaheen (D) and Sen. John Sununu (R) are both extremely well known statewide and the poll numbers in the race haven't moved much -- showing the Democrat with a low-double-digit lead. Shaheen is now on television with an ad talking about gas prices and her plan to reduce costs. It's clear Sununu is in the race of his life, but he has two things going for him: John McCain will run strong in the Granite State at the top of the ballot, and Sununu is a better candidate than Shaheen. Is it enough? Probably not. (Previous ranking: 4)

3. Colorado (R): Democratic Rep. Mark Udall is using his financial edge over former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R) to take to the airwaves with three television ads seeking to insulate himself against potential charges of being soft on national security issues. "These days maybe you're wondering isn't there a better way to protect America?" Udall asks. "I think so." Schaffer has been forced back on his heels for much of this race -- bouncing from slip up to scandal -- and yet Udall hasn't been able pull away. Udall has to be considered the favorite in this race, but it is a slight edge given the state's demographics. (Previous ranking: 3)

2. New Mexico (R): Rep. Steve Pearce's victory over Rep. Heather Wilson in the Republican primary earlier this month improves Rep. Tom Udall's (D) chances of winning this open seat in the fall. While Pearce's solid record of conservatism during his six years in the House played well in the primary, it's not likely to be as helpful in a general election in a state that is clearly trending toward Democrats. Pearce will paint Udall as too liberal for the state, but the Democrat has a solid gold last name (his father, Stewart, was a congressman from Arizona and Secretary of the Interior during the Kennedy/Johnson Administrations; and his uncle was the famous Mo Udall, also a former Arizona congressman). He also has crime-fighting credentials from the eight years in the 1990s he spent as the state's Attorney General. This is an extremely strong pickup chance for Democrats. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. Virginia (R): Former governor Jim Gilmore won the Senate nomination over state Del. Bob Marshall by just 66 votes (out of more than 10,000 cast) at the Republican Party convention early this month -- a stunningly poor performance and a sign of how desperate Republicans' straits are in the Commonwealth. The most interesting thing about this race is the speculation that former governor Mark Warner (D) may leave it at some point to take his party's vice presidential nomination. If he does, who would replace him on the Senate ballot. Our best guess? Former Lt. Gov. Don Beyer (D), who could avenge a 1997 gubernatorial defeat to Gilmore. (Previous ranking: 1)

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 13, 2008; 8:15 AM ET
Categories:  Senate , The Line  
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