The 2012 cycle of course is going to spend the bulk of its time talking about the race of Gov. Mitt Romney vs. President Barack Obama. That is the way of things.
However, especially for Republicans, Congress may actually be more important. Nothing Republicans want to achieve (tax reform, entitlement changes, spending restraint) can be accomplished without retaining the House and Senate.
As for the House…I am fairly confident that, short of a catastrophe that is unimaginable at this moment, the Republicans will hold the House of Representatives. Charlie Cook, who is by far the best predictor of House races on a national level that I know, basically predicts very little or no change to the Republicans advantage. Stuart Rothenberg, another respected expert, basically believes that Democrats have no chance of retaking the House.
But the Senate? The Senate is much more fascinating, and should lead to many intriguing races in the fall.
So what are the most interesting races, and the overall picture, of the Senate race?
The race between Sen. Scott Brown, who took over for liberal lion Ted Kennedy, and Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren has been heated and likely will be the most expensive Senate race this year. Brown has earned a lot of political capital in the state as he is one of the few true moderates left in the Senate. Warren has the liberal machinery behind her, and although she has had headwinds (like her question of Native American ancestry), it has little mattered so far. The race is tied in virtually every poll.
PREDICTION: Scott Brown by a nose. But really a tossup. Right now, Republican hold.
The race between former Gov. and DNC head Tim Kaine, a close ally of Obama’s, and former Sen. George Allen will get heated for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that Virginia is now a presidential battleground state. This may end up to be a Republican vs. Democrat proxy fight. The latest poll by a Republican outfit shows Allen leading by 9, but I think this is an outlier. This race is tied.
PREDICTION: Allen, by a few thousand votes; a virtual toss-up. Republican pickup.
Nevada is another battleground state which, like Virginia, is going to be a party proxy. Current Sen. Dean Heller faces Democrat Shelley Berkeley. Heller leads by a tiny margin in the polls, but any news could shift this race. I do wonder though, in this state with a large Mormon population, if that extra lift may push Heller over the top.
PREDICTION: Heller. Republican hold.
4. North Dakota
North Dakota should be the easiest of Republican pickups, but it is not turning out that way. Rick Berg has struggled to add distance from Democrat challenger Heidi Heitkamp. However, the most recent Rasmussen poll has Berg leading by 9 points. Heitkamp has so far run a brilliant race. But in a state that likely will vote for Romney by a +20 margin, and with Berg with a money advantage and ready to pound Democrats over Obamacare, I still think Republicans pick up this seat.
PREDICTION: Berg. Republican pickup.
Montana is intriguing. Jon Tester is a fairly popular Democrat in the state. However, most polls show him trailing Denny Rehberg. Tester is running away from the Obama record as fast as he can. Again, like North Dakota, this is one of those states where the Presidential race may have coattails.
PREDICTION. Rehberg. Republican pickup.
Wisconsin is a blue state! Well, until Gov. Walker. Now, this race is trending red, and Obama now sees it as a battleground too. Fmr. Gov. Tommy Thompson is the presumptive nominee for Republicans, and he is now leading in virtually every poll versus Democrat Tammy Baldwin.
PREDICTION: Thompson. Republican pickup.
Bill Nelson is like Charlie Brown’s football…Republicans think they can kick him out every six years, and fail. Connie Mack is going to try his best, but has not run a solid campaign as yet. Nelson has led in every poll so far.
PREDICTION: Nelson. Democrat hold.
Claire McCaskill is quickly becoming one of the most endangered Democrats. Every poll has her trailing a trio of Republicans, and all three Republicans (Sarah Steelman, John Brunner, Todd Akin) all poll at over 50%…a death sentence for an incumbent. Additionally, the Obama campaign has written off the state. No coattails here.
Prediction: Republican pickup.
9. New Mexico
New Mexico continues to trend blue. Martin Heinrich leads Republican Heather Wilson by five points. If Romney can challenge in the state, Wilson has a chance. But this is a heavy Democrat lean at this point.
Prediction: Democrat hold.
Olympia Snowe stunned Republicans with her retirement. Former Independent Governor Angus King is going to walk away with this election, and will caucus with Democrats.
Prediction: Independent win; virtual Democrat gain.
This of course doesn’t include other races like Hawaii, Michigan, Arizona, and Connecticut, states in which should the incumbent party should hold their respective seats, or Nebraska which is an obvious Republican pickup.
One state I also didn’t include above? My home state of Ohio. Right now, Sherrod Brown leads by double digits over Republican Josh Mandel. Mandel has a lot of money, but a lot of ground to make up.
If you take all this into account, that would mean the Democrats gain one Republican seat (Maine), while Republicans gain 6 seats. That would give Republicans a net gain of 5 seats, a 52-46-2 advantage in the Senate, and the majority, making Mitch McConnell the Senate Majority leader.
There remains an enormous amount of flux in the race. The most tenuous races for Republicans remain Massachusetts and Virginia, which could easily flip. Losing those two seats alone, that would make the Senate a tie, leaving the decision to the Presidential race and the ultimate Vice President of the United States. On the other hand, Florida, New Mexico and even Hawaii could move in the other direction, all of which have competitive races that could easily shift. But right now, the trend is for Republicans to take over the U.S. Senate.