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Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Sherrod Brown (L) talks with patrons of Tommy's Diner during a campaign stop in Columbus, Ohio, November 6, 2006.
Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown's strength has put a damper on GOP efforts to win control of the Senate this November.
Upgrade the Senate bug
The early conventional wisdom was that Democrats would have a tall order holding the Senate in 2012. Not only did they have few pickoff opportunities of their own, but they were playing defense in some seriously tough territory.

These days, however, the Senate is looking much safer. Follow me below the fold for a complete rundown.

Goal Thermometer
DEMOCRATIC PICKUP OPPORTUNITIES

Maine
A Democrat won't win the race to succeed Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe. Neither will a Republican. The guy who will, independent Angus King, is a Pres. Barack Obama partisan. This is essentially a guaranteed pickup for us, even if King is destined to be a future thorn on our side.

Massachusetts
Fluke Republican Sen. Scott Brown looked headed toward easy reelection—high poll numbers and no credible Democratic opposition. Elizabeth Warren has changed that. While the race is essentially tied, it's hard to see how Brown gets to 50+1 in Indigo Blue Massachusetts.

Nevada
Ignore Rasmussen, and Democrat Shelley Berkley trails appointed Sen. Dean Heller slightly. The pundits want to write this off, but Berkley will have a great deal of top-of-the-ballot help in a race that has been trending heavily Democratic.

Arizona
With the race surprisingly close (though with the GOP ahead), Republicans will have a harder time holding the Senate seat than planned. The state's political leanings give the strong edge to the GOP, but if Democrats can get Latinos to actually turn out, then this could surprise. And if nothing else, Republicans will have to spend lots of money playing defense.

Indiana
Republicans put this seat in play when they ousted centuries-old incumbent Dick Lugar in their Senate primary in favor of teabagger Richard Mourdock. The race is tied, as both Murdoch and Democrat Joe Donnelly languish in the low 40s. The state's politics makes it far easier for Murdoch to get the 10 points he needs than Donnelly. But worst-case scenario, Republicans will have to spend millions holding a seat they would've held for free.

Overall, we're looking at +2 strong pickup opportunities, and a shot at 1-3 more. Also, the Democratic caucus will get a decided upgrade in Connecticut, where Joe Lieberman is likely to be replaced with Rep. Chris Murphy.

REPUBLICAN PICKUP OPPORTUNITIES

Nebraska
Republicans will pick up this seat from retiring Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, but they've unexpectedly had to spend millions to ward off Democrat Bob Kerrey. That part has been awesome.

Missouri
While freshman Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill is still an underdog against newly minted Republican opponent Todd Akin, she got the weakest Republican they could serve up. Akin is undoubtedly (and unabashedly) an extremist, and the Democrats will spend gazillions making that point to Missouri voters over the next three months. McCaskill's problem is the same as Brown's in Massachusetts—she's stuck in the mid-40s. How will she get to 50+1 in a state that has been trending redder, and with little top-of-the-ballot help?

North Dakota
This was supposedly a guaranteed Republican pickup of a Democratic open seat, except that it isn't. Democrat Heidi Heitkamp is actually leading in the polling. Her biggest challenge (like Brown and McCaskill) is closing the final gap to 50+1. But North Dakota is small enough were retail politics truly matters, and she probably has a better chance of closing that gap than McCaskill, Scott Brown or Murdoch.

Virginia
The battle of Virginia powerhouses—former Republican Gov. and Sen. George Allen versus former Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine—is a real dogfight. Expect this to go down to the wire.

Montana
Freshman Democratic Sen. Jon Tester is up against perennially drunk Rep. Denny Rehberg, who is also elected statewide in this single-House district state. The state hasn't been polled much, but if Rasmussen gives Rehberg a slight lead, then reality is that Tester probably leads. In any case, Virginia and Montana were the last two states called in 2006, and don't be surprised if that's the case in 2012.

Wisconsin
Another Democratic seat left open due to retirement, Republicans are still fighting over who will get their nomination—the far more electable former Gov. Tommy Thompson, or one of two teabagger-supported guys. No matter who wins, however, Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin is running even or ahead. And Baldwin will get more of a boost from Obama than the Republican will get from Romney.

Ohio
Never has so much billionaire money been so utterly wasted, as the supposedly vulnerable too-liberal-for-his-state freshman Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown is running strong. This race has become decidedly second-tier.

Republicans also got their preferred candidates in Hawaii and New Mexico, but neither appear to be particularly competitive. They've got someone in free-spending Linda McMahon that will make Connecticut interesting, but no more so than it was in 2010. Republicans seem set to nominate a comically flawed Connie Mack the 19th (or something) in Florida after GOP efforts to find someone more credible failed.

THE MATH

Democrats hold 53 seats (including Lieberman and Vermont independent Bernie Sanders), Republicans 47. They need to pick up four seats for an outright majority. However, with Maine and Massachusetts likely Democratic, that means they need six. And that's assuming they can hold on to Arizona, Indiana and Nevada.

Republicans have a guaranteed pickup in Nebraska and a likely one in Missouri. That gets them back to 47. So in order to take outright control of the Senate, they need to win four of the five next races on the list above—a tall order. If McCaskill can hang on, the math becomes all but impossible.

Also amazing—while 2/3rds of the seats up for grabs this cycle are held by Democrats, the playing field has become far more even—five Republican-held seats versus seven Democratic-held ones. I doubt anyone would've guessed that even a few months ago.

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