We live in a hyper-nationalized political environment these days, in which a Senate candidate’s prospects in a presidential election year depend heavily on how their party’s presidential nominee performs.
And yet, in 2012, the battle for control of the Senate will be fought largely outside the swing states.
Almost all of the other toss-up races, meanwhile, will take place in either very blue states — Hawaii, Maine and Massachusetts — or pretty red states — Missouri, Montana, and North Dakota.
Meanwhile, the erstwhile big-time swing states — Florida, Ohio and to a lesser extent Michigan and Pennsylvania — are considered a part of the second tier of races. In other words, if the GOP wins these seats, they’ve definitely re-taken a majority in the Senate.
So what does this mean for the race going forward?
First, it means that we’re going to see a lot of uncomfortable maneuvering by candidates seeking to distance themselves from their party’s presidential candidate. And it won’t just be Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and former senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) separating themselves from President Obama; it will also mean Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and former Hawaii governor Linda Lingle (R) trying to downplay their party affiliation in some of the bluest states in the country. Brown and Lingle will need lots and lots of Obama crossover voters, just like McCaskill, Tester and Kerrey will need lots of Romney crossover voters.
And finally, it means local issues will matter. Sometimes we forget that a candidate’s position on the issues actually plays a role, and the issue matrix is different in every state. That goes double when the presidential race doesn’t really factor into your state. Even though people may still be watching the presidential race, the media will focus more on the Senate race than they otherwise would — especially if the Senate contest is hotly contested.
Even in today’s nationalized political environment, campaigns matter. And that will be even clearer in an election in which control of the Senate will be decided outside the swing states.
With that in mind, here's our latest ranking of the top 10 Senate seats, as usual ranked according to which are most likely to flip control in this year’s election.
To the line!
10. Wisconsin (Democratic-controlled): The Republican primary here shows no sign of settling down; Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) just endorsed former congressman Mark Neumann — another sign of conservative unhappiness with former governor Tommy Thompson. Meanwhile, businessman Eric Hovde has thrown a wrench in the GOP primary by plugging $1.75 million of his own money into the campaign in the first quarter. On the Democratic side, Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) upped her fundraising big time, pulling in $2 million in the first quarter. Those are good signs for Democrats. (Previous ranking: 10)
9. Virginia (D): This race has gradually slipped down our list as other races have asserted themselves. But it’s not just that; it’s also the fact that former governor Tim Kaine’s (D) fundraising has consistently outpaced former senator George Allen’s (R). We expect this race to be very close, and nearly every pollster has borne that out. But fundraising says something about a campaign, and Kaine has built a $4.5 million to $2.6 million edge in cash on hand despite giving Allen a head start in the campaign. (Previous ranking: 8)
8. New Mexico (D): With Lt. Gov. John Sanchez out of the Republican primary here, former congresswoman Heather Wilson (R) is raking in cash. She took in nearly $760,000 in the first quarter of 2012, while Rep. Martin Heinrich (D) raised only $490,000. Heinrich still has a bit more cash on hand, and money for his primary rival, state Auditor Hector Balderas, appears to have all but dried up. But Wilson’s first-quarter win in the fundraising wars speaks to her formidable campaign. This is a marquee race. (Previous ranking: 9)
7. Nevada (Republican-controlled): This race has stayed tight for months, with Sen. Dean Heller (R) and Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) about neck and neck in cash on hand and polling. A potential shakeup could come from a House Ethics Committee investigation into allegations that Berkley used her position to help her husband’s heart-transplant practice succeed. Heller has so far stayed quiet on the issue, but the committee’s July decision could easily bring this issue to the fore. (Previous ranking: 7)
6. Massachusetts (R): Elizabeth Warren (D) continues to be a fundraising phenom in her campaign against Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.); she pulled in $6.9 million between January and March — a haul that nearly set the record for the first quarter of an election year. But the race for her is more about how she comes off and whether she can close the likeability gap with Brown. Of course, lots of money can help her make that happen. (Previous ranking: 6)
5. Montana (D): Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) finally matched Sen. Jon Tester (D) in fundraising in the first quarter of 2012 — both men raised $1.2 million — but the incumbent senator still has a wide cash lead. Polling suggests the race is within the low-single digits. That’s where it’s been and where it will stay all the way through November. Democrats are confident that Tester’s personal brand can overcome what will likely be an easy victory at the presidential level for Mitt Romney. That may depend on how effective a campaign Rehberg runs and how much of the vote the two libertarian candidates on the ballot take. Remember: The libertarian candidate took 10,000 votes in Tester’s last race, and he won by about 3,500 votes. (Previous ranking: 5)
4. Missouri (D): Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) had a huge first quarter, bringing in $2.3 million and far outpacing her top potential GOP rivals. It’s clear she’s not going without a fight. But this is just such a tough state for her. Even though former state treasurer Sarah Steelman (R) has barely raised any money, she still leads McCaskill 49 percent to 42 percent in the latest automated Rasmussen survey. McCaskill, who rarely cracks the low 40s in the polls, needs to raise her ceiling of support significantly. (Previous ranking: 4)
3. North Dakota (D): Rep. Rick Berg (R) is no John Hoeven. The latter cruised to an open seat victory in 2010 as a popular three-term governor, while Berg was just elected to his House seat in 2010, and Berg isn’t nearly as popular. But in a presidential year in North Dakota, he probably doesn’t need to be. Former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D) is a solid and credible candidate who will likely keep her side close enough to capitalize if Berg slips up. But Democrats almost certainly need Berg to make a mistake to win here. (Previous ranking: 3)
2. Maine (R): Former governor Angus King (I) is polling a huge — nay, massive — lead early in the race to replace retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). The first public poll of the race showed King leading Republican Secretary of State Charlie Summers 56 percent to 22 percent, with Democratic former secretary of state Matt Dunlap at 12 percent. The only thing preventing us from moving this to No. 1 on the list is the chance — however slight — that King would struggle so mightily in this new era of political campaigning that he would blow the lead or that he would wind up caucusing with Republicans. Both are very unlikely. (Previous ranking: 2)
1. Nebraska (D) : Former senator Bob Kerrey (D) collected more than $900,000 in his first month as a candidate, and the Republican field to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Ben Nelson (D) is something short of stellar. And yet, this is Nebraska in a presidential year, which makes it a virtual impossibility that Democrats can win. The Republican primary, which is currently led by state Attorney General Jon Bruning, will get nasty, and Kerrey has a clear field on his side of the aisle. But it’s just hard to see how the math adds up for Kerrey in a state that Obama is likely to lose by double digits. (Previous ranking: 1)
Chris Cillizza and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.