Democrats' Chances of Retaining 59 Senate Seats Improve

06/15/2010 08:40 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We've been talking about the midterms since inauguration. And in the months to come you will continue to hear about 2010 as a Republican year, and how President Obama's agenda is on the verge of a catastrophic derailment. But over the last few weeks, the political landscape has started to shift in ways that may completely upend the conventional wisdom.

Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight has, not surprisingly, done an excellent job of rating Senate races using a simulation that games out all the possible election night outcomes and predicts their likelihood of occurring. At the end of April, Silver's simulation had Democrats retaining at least 59 seats only about 11 percent of the time.

Not great odds, I'll admit. But a number of things have happened since that forecast that make the possibility of Democrats ending up with 59 seats a lot more likely.

The races we're still going to lose--North Dakota, Arkansas, Delaware, Indiana:

These are the ones that Democrats are going to lose pretty much no matter what. There are four of them: North Dakota, Arkansas, Delaware, and Indiana. Losing these and maintaining our 59 seat majority will mean holding all of our other Democratic seats and picking off four Republicans.

The ones we can still take to the bank--California, Connecticut, Washington:

These are three states that Democrats are going to have to hold. But that seems likely. Barbara Boxer is polling ahead of Carly Fiorina in California, and that's before she spends money painting Fiorina as the character of the far right she has become. In the Republican primary, Fiorina was forced to take positions that but her outside the mainstream in California, including one in favor of the Arizona immigration law. In a state with a voting population that is almost 20% Latino, Fiorina's flirtations with the right will prove fatal to her candidacy.

In Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal held dramatic leads over Linda McMahon both before and after it was revealed that he had lied about his service in Vietnam. Even after the public was well-educated on the controversy, Blumenthal's number held. Looks like this race is going to turn out to be easier than it ought to be for Blumenthal.

In Washington, Patty Murray is relatively popular and she's running against Dino Rossi, who isn't. This is a serious long-shot race for the Republican party; it's very unlikely that it will switch hands.

The one's we need to hold--Nevada, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Illinois:

Harry Reid has spent most of 2009 and 2010 with poll numbers suggesting he was almost certain to lose. But now Republicans have nominated tea party favorite Sharron Angle, who is opposed to Social Security, the Department of Education, and the sale of alcohol, among many, many other things. Reid's team believed she was by far the best possible candidate for him to run against--which is saying something in a field that included chicken-bartering enthusiast Sue Lowden.

Polls before the primary showed Harry Reid defeating Angle, though a Rasmussen poll taken just after the primary showed Angle with a double-digit lead. That number is almost certainly reflecting the temporary bounce that is common after primaries, as well as Rasmussen's own leanings. Even so, Sharron Angle is the kind of candidate that can be easily taken down by her own record. And with over $9 million in the bank, that shouldn't be a problem for Harry Reid. In Nevada the Tea Party has also qualified for the ballot. And though the "Tea Party Express" and other fringe groups are backing Angle, given the unorganized nature of the tea party movement, Harry Reid may very well win the race because a Tea Party candidate takes a few percentage points from Angle.

As it turns out, Joe Sestak was right to say no to the mediocre job offer floated his way. It looks like the next line on his resume could very well read "United States Senator." Through much of the primary race between Sestak and Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA), both Democrats trailed Republican candidate Pat Toomey by wide margins. But the same ad blitz that propelled Sestak passed Specter in the primary seems to have done some damage to Toomey, as well. As it turns out, the more Pennsylvanians get to know about Sestak, the more they like him. The most recent polls have shown Sestak up between four and seven points.

Michael Bennet's struggles in Colorado had given the Republican party hope that the Democratic tide in the Western states had ebbed. For months polls showed Bennet tied or trailing his opponent, Republican Jane Norton. But after the Arizona immigration bill was signed into law, the electorate in neighboring Colorado shifted in a way that is becoming the norm for Republicans:

From Public Policy Polling (h/t Ben Smith):

When we polled Colorado in early March Michael Bennet and Jane Norton were tied. Last week we found Bennet with a 3 point lead. One of the biggest reasons for that shift? Bennet went from leading Norton by 12 points with Hispanic voters to a 21 point advantage.

If Bennet can hold the Hispanic vote, he can hold his Senate seat.

The Illinois Senate race looked for a while like it was becoming hopeless for Democrats. When the government seized Democratic nominee Alexi Giannoulias' family bank, Republican Mark Kirk found all the ammo he needed to hammer his opponent. The polls showed a fairly steady drop in approval for Giannoulias. But recent revelations that Kirk had repeatedly lied about his service in Vietnam has the potential to reset the race.

For reasons passing understanding, voters in Connecticut have decided not to punish Richard Blumenthal in the polls for his Vietnam falsehoods; but Illinois voters may have a different reaction to a similar revelation. And perhaps more importantly, the fact that Giannoulias now has a potentially damaging personal attack to lob at Kirk might convince Kirk (and his operatives) to steer his campaign away from personal issues and onto safer, steadier turf. Of the races we have to hold, this one will probably be the toughest.

Still, the Giannoulias campaign is hearing news today that might change all that. Mike Niecestro, who describes himself as "a disgusted Republican" is preparing for a third party challenge in Illinois. Presumably that challenge will be from the right, not the center, and will siphon votes from Kirk, not Giannoulias.

The four we need to pick off--Florida, Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri:

Since Charlie Crist announced his decisions to run for Senate in Florida as an Independent, nearly every public poll has showed him leading. He is doing so well, in large part, because he is beating Kendrick Meek, the likely Democratic nominee...among Democrats. Crist's best shot at the Senate seat is holding that Democratic support--and he knows it. Publicly, he has taken a number of Democratic positions, including his recent vetoes of an anti-abortion bill and a bill that was opposed by the teacher's union.

His public performance suggests that, should Crist win, he will caucus with the Democrats.

Inside the Crist campaign there is even more evidence to suggest he'll be joining the same caucus as the Senate's other Independents. He hired Josh Isay, former chief of staff to Chuck Schumer, as his media strategist. Schumer is a senior leader in the Democratic party, potentially next in line for Senate Majority leader, and former Chairman of the DSCC. It's hard to believe he would have given the okay for one of his top lieutenants to assist Crist without assurances that Crist would, indeed, caucus with Democrats. That is likely also true for SKD Knickerbocker, a Democratic media firm Crist hired, as well as for Democratic consultant Eric Johnson, who is advising the Crist campaign, and who served as chief of staff to former Congressman Robert Wexler.

At this point, every available sign points to Crist caucusing with the Democrats; and every available poll shows the potential of his victory likely.

Rand Paul's victory and subsequent media roll-out have made Kentucky a genuine toss-up race. Betting money still has to be on a Republican winning the seat in such a Republican state in 2010, but Paul has already said and done things opposed by the national Republican leadership and by Republican members of his own state legislature. Jack Conway is easily the strongest Democratic candidate to take on Paul, who appears to be one or two crazy proclamations away from getting sent back to his uncertified ophthalmology practice.

The race to replace retiring Republican Senator George Voinovich is as much about the past as it is about the future. Rob Portman, the Republican nominee, was the U.S. Trade Representative under President George W. Bush, and carries with him a legacy of advocating for the kind of trade policies that many Ohioans blame for the painful job losses that have occurred there. Portman has trailed Democrat Lee Fisher in the polls since April, and Fisher still hasn't put the full weight of his campaign into the "trade rep" attack yet. This one might still be close now, but I suspect Fisher is going to run away with it.

This race has looked tough and continues to look tough. For Democrats to hold onto 59 seats, Robin Carnahan is going to have to pull out a win against Roy Blunt in a state that even Obama couldn't carry in 2008. The average shows Blunt leading Carnahan by 4 points. But a recent Rasmussen survey shows Blunt leading by just one point, 45-44. Given Rasmussen's reputation for having a Republican-leaning house effect, this race is easily a genuine toss-up.

Because of the sheer number of things that will need to happen in order for Democrats to retain their 59 seats, the task of achieving it seems daunting. But a lot of the things that need to happen are the same things that probably will happen. And the rest of them all seem like real possibilities.

Even if Democrats come up short, the fact that things are looking promising for Democrats on a state-by-state basis means that come November, the party is a lot more likely to experience a loss of just a couple seats than they are to experience a loss of majority control.