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A GOP Senate majority? Just wait for 2014

The GOP's path to a Senate majority appears to be getting tougher -- first thanks to Rep. Todd Akin's (R-Mo.) comments about "legitimate rape" and now with multiple polls showing key races in Massachusetts, Virginia and Wisconsin shifting toward Democrats.

But even if Republicans don't pull it off in 2012, watch out in 2014. Seriously.

Here's the breakdown:

- 20 Democrats will be up for reelection, compared to 13 Republicans.

- 12 of those 20 Democrats come from either red states (six) or swing states (six).

- Only one of the 13 Republicans comes from a state that isn't red, and that's Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), whose seat is basically safe unless she retires.

Top GOP targets are likely to include Democratic Sens. Mark Begich (Alaska), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Max Baucus (Mont.), Tim Johnson (S.D.), Mark Udall (Colo.), Al Franken (Minn.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) and Kay Hagan (N.C.). Five of the nine are first-term senators, and Republicans have already got a strong potential candidate against Johnson, with  former governor Mike Rounds launching an exploratory committee last week.)

Republicans could also have a chance at winning the seats of Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), particularly if either of them (both are in their 70s) retire. And Virginia could also be a target under the right circumstances, but right now Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) is very popular.

On the Democratic side, besides Collins's seat, about the only apparent target is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and even he will start as a significant favorite to win reelection.

Given that Republicans appear likely to at least narrow the Democrats' 53-to-47 margin in the Senate this year, 2014 should afford them a huge opportunity to either re-take the majority or expand it if they can win the chamber this year.

Now, this comes with all the caveats you would expect this far out:

1. Things change. A lot. Just 20 months ago, Republicans were licking their chops over the 2012 map. With opportunities in red states like Nebraska, Montana, North Dakota and Missouri and in swing states like Florida, Ohio and Virginia, it appeared back then that the Senate was about to go red. Today, the GOP's path appears tougher than ever.

2. Candidates matter, and so does incumbency. Many of the Democrats facing reelection in red states in 2014 have track records of survival in tough states. Pryor, Landrieu, Baucus and Johnson have all served multiple terms and won't be pushovers. That said, American politics is increasingly a red-vs.-blue game, with longtime incumbent Republicans in blue areas losing in spades in 2006 and 2008 and many longtime incumbent Democrats in red areas falling in 2010. Under this more parliamentary regime, it should be tougher for even a Democrat with lots of incumbency in a red state to survive. And when those incumbent Democrats retire -- as Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) have the last two years -- it's the GOP's seat to lose.

3. Though Republicans have great maps in 2012 and 2014, they will in turn face a brutal map in 2016. The GOP will have to defend seats in blue states like Illinois and Pennsylvania and swing states including Wisconsin, Ohio, North Carolina, New Hampshire and Florida. Just as big Democratic wins in 2006 and 2008 make those classes ripe for GOP pickups in 2012 and 2014, the big GOP gains of 2010 make that class very tough for Republicans to defend in 2016.

In other words, no matter who wins the majority this year, Republicans will have a great chance to hold it after the 2014 election, and Democrats will have a great chance to try and even the score in 2016.