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Senate playing field shifts but GOP still poised for major gains

The electoral plates are shifting in the battle for the Senate with two West Coast races moving toward Democrats while two East Coast contests shifting toward Republicans.

In both California and Washington State, Democratic incumbents are on more solid political ground today than they were a few weeks ago -- the result of effective negative ads aimed at their opponents.

But in open seat races in West Virginia and Connecticut, Democrats are showing a surprising amount of vulnerability as the national political environment seems to be complicating their path to victory.

Friday Line

The net effect? We are in, roughly, the same place we were a few weeks ago in the Senate with Republicans poised to make considerable gains and with a chance -- though not a 50-50 shot -- at re-capturing the majority.

To do so, the GOP would need to win the eight top races on this week's Line -- all held by Democrats -- and then find a way to emerge victorious in two of the following four states: Washington, California, West Virginia and Connecticut. (And, of course, Republicans would have to hold their handful of endangered open seats.)

Republicans are still very much on offense -- despite the devastating blow their chances took in Delaware earlier this month -- but Democrats seem to have turned back the idea of a full scale rout at this point.

As always, the number one ranked race is the most likely to switch party control on Nov. 2. Kudos? Critiques? The comments section awaits.

To the Line!

Coming onto the Line: Connecticut, West Virginia
Coming off the Line: Florida, Ohio

15. New Hampshire (Republican controlled): A new Granite State Poll
released yesterday shows former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte (R) comfortably ahead of Rep. Paul Hodes (D). Ayotte seems to have quickly put her narrow primary victory behind her and is benefiting from a Republican wind blowing in the state. (Previous ranking: 15)

14. Connecticut (Democratic controlled): A Quinnipiac University poll released earlier this week showed state Attorney General Richard Blumnenthal (D) at 49 percent while former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon (R) took 46 percent. That's far closer than almost anyone expected this race would be -- although Democrats insist the Q poll is wrong and Blumenthal's margin is wider. (That argument was undercut somewhat by the news that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is going up with ads in the state today.) McMahon continues to run a very solid campaign although a seeming slip up on the minimum wage could hurt her. (Previous ranking: N/A)

13. California (D): A series of recent polls -- the Los Angeles Times, CNN/Time, the Public Policy Institute of California and the vaunted Field Poll -- all show Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) leading former HP executive Carly Fiorina (R) by between six and nine points. Republicans insist the race remains a priority and that they are committing $2 million to Fiorina but this is an expensive state, and there are lots of other - and arguably better - opportunities. (Previous ranking: 11)

12. Washington (D): Things are looking up for Sen. Patty Murray (D) after a summer in which she appeared to be losing ground to former state Sen. Dino Rossi (R). Rossi waited to go negative on Murray and that may well have been a fatal mistake. (Previous ranking: 12)

11. West Virginia (D): When popular Gov. Joe Manchin (D) decided to run in the Nov. 2 special election occasioned by the death of late Sen. Robert Byrd (D), it was assumed he would coast to victory against businessman John Raese (R). But, those predictions failed to take into account the deep unpopularity of President Barack Obama and the national Democratic party in the Mountain State. Both national Senate committees are on air and the polling trend line in the race doesn't look good for Manchin. (Previous ranking: N/A)

10. Kentucky (R): The national parties vehemently disagree about the state of the race between ophthalmologist Rand Paul (R) and state Attorney General Jack Conway (D). Democrats insist it's a toss up, Republicans believe Paul is comfortably ahead. Paul's tendency to make impolitic comments virtually ensures that Conway will come closer than a Democrat should in a conservative state like Kentucky in a year like this one. But, can the Democrat get 50 percent plus one? (Previous ranking: 10)

9. Missouri (R): This remains Democrats' best shot at taking a seat from Republicans, and if they can do it, their majority is likely safe. The DSCC went on the air this week, and Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D) is up with a new ad hitting Rep. Roy Blunt (R) on congressional earmarks. Blunt is a flawed candidate, but even Democratic polling shows him in the lead. (Previous ranking: 8)

8. Nevada (D): This might be the truest toss-up out there right now. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) and Sharron Angle (R) both bring major vulnerabilities to the table, so it should be no surprise that basically every recent poll has them separated by two points or less. It should also be no surprise that both of them seem to be shunning the spotlight and letting their TV ads speak for them lately. (Previous ranking: 6)

7. Colorado (D): This race between appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (D) and Weld County prosecutor Ken Buck (R) has gotten ugly fast. Both the Democratic and Republican party committees went up this week with negative TV ads, and a poll released by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee showed that both candidates are now viewed more unfavorably than favorably by voters. The race is close and is likely to stay that way. (Previous ranking: 7)

6. Wisconsin (D): Wealthy businessman Ron Johnson (R) has run one of the best -- if not the best -- Senate campaigns this cycle. He has effectively taken the "outsider" label from Sen. Russ Feingold (D) and has turned the Badger State Senate race into a surprisingly likely Republican pickup. Feingold should not be underestimated as a candidate and a campaigner but this race is increasingly looking like Johnson's to lose. (Previous ranking: 12)

5. Illinois (D): Illinois is looking like a very tough state for Democrats, especially with Gov. Pat Quinn (D) continuing to struggle. The Senate race is polling very close right now, but both sides have plenty of mud-slinging left in them. Kirk has more campaign money to spend on that, plus he's got a $3.4 million commitment from the NRSC. Slight advantage: Kirk. (Previous ranking: 5)

4. Pennsylvania (D): An onslaught of ads by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Rep. Joe Sestak (D) slamming former Rep. Pat Toomey (R) for his ties to the financial sector have helped narrow the gap in this race. But, the environment in the Keystone State is going to be tough for Sestak to overcome as neither President Obama nor the national party is particularly popular. This race isn't over yet but today you'd still rather be Toomey than Sestak. (Previous ranking: 4)

3. Indiana (D): Democratic Rep. Brad Ellsworth is a good candidate running in a very bad year. With national Democrats showing no signs of spending any significant money to help him in his race against former Sen. Dan Coats (R), Ellsworth needs to start thinking about his next race. (Previous ranking: 3)

2. Arkansas (D): Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) closed her margin against Rep. John Boozman (R) in the most recent independent poll. That would be great, except for the fact that she's still down by 14 points. It's hard to see how she wins, absent an implosion from Boozman or a strong shift in the national environment -- neither of which are at all likely. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. North Dakota (D): Knock, knock, knockin' on Hoeven's door. (Previous ranking: 1)

With Aaron Blake and Felicia Sonmez

By Chris Cillizza  | October 1, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  The Line  
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