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Senate GOP botches 2012

Heading into the 2012 cycle, the Senate looked brutal for Democrats. The majority party had 23 seats up for grabs, compared to just 10 for Republicans. The GOP’s incumbents were mostly in safe territory, while Democrats had to defend a disproportionate number of seats in battleground or hostile territory. 

Thus, the question last year wasn’t whether Republicans would make gains, but whether Democrats would hold on to their six-seat majority. Nobody is asking that anymore.

Republicans had three apparent surefire pickups earlier this cycle — open Democratic seats in Nebraska and North Dakota, and the Missouri seat held by freshman Sen. Claire McCaskill. Today, only Nebraska remains safely Republican. Missouri GOP nominee Rep. Todd Akin imploded with his “legitimate rape” comments, while North Dakota has remained stubbornly competitive thanks to former Democratic Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, who’s bucked her state’s red lean with effective retail politicking.

Top-tier GOP challengers in Florida, Hawaii, Michigan and New Mexico fizzled, while tens of millions of dollars in super-PAC attack ads did little to damage freshman Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) in Ohio against his joke opponent. 

Free-spending conservative millionaires have made Connecticut and Pennsylvania surprisingly competitive, yet Democrats retain smallish but comfortable advantages in those states. In Wisconsin, Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) is clinging to a tiny advantage thanks to former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s (R) incompetent campaigning and lack of cash.

That leaves 2006’s closest Senate races: In Montana, freshman incumbent Jon Tester (D) and Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) have been tied the entire cycle and will go down to the wire. But in Virginia, what was a neck-and-neck race is now a clear Democratic advantage for Democratic former Gov. Tim Kaine over the guy who lost this seat six years ago, George “Macaca” Allen. 

Thus, Democrats might lose as little as one seat, and at most four (Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wisconsin). They’re also playing more offense than expected.

Establishment Democrats were afraid to take on accidental Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R) early this cycle. Now Elizabeth Warren is poised to easily win the seat next Tuesday. And in Maine, the surprise retirement of Olympia Snowe (R) has opened the way for left-leaning Independent Angus King to pick up the seat. 

In addition to those sure pickups, Democrats have remained stubbornly competitive, thanks in large part to the Latino vote, in Arizona and Nevada. In Arizona, former Surgeon General Richard Carmona and Republican Rep. Jeff Flake have both hovered around 45 percent of the vote in the polling aggregate. Meanwhile, appointed incumbent Dean Heller’s slight polling advantage against Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley might be a mirage: In 2010, Sen. Harry Reid (D) trailed in pre-election polling by 2.7 points in the RealClearPolitics polling aggregate. He won his race by 5.6 points. Obama outperformed the state’s aggregate polling by 6 points in 2008. If pollsters haven’t learned to better poll Nevada, Berkley might yet pull through.

Which leaves Indiana, where conservative primary voters exchanged longtime entrenched incumbent Sen. Dick Lugar for ideologue teabagger Richard Mourdock. The Republican has proven as crazy as Todd Akin, stating in a debate last week that a rape pregnancy was a gift from God. Yet another Republican’s bizarre beliefs about rape have made this a genuine Democratic pickup, despite Indiana’s red demographics.

Tally it up and the most likely outcome for Democrats is between losing two seats and gaining four, or between a 51-49 Democratic Senate (including independents) and a 57-43 one. In other words, the Senate GOP really botched 2012.

Moulitsas is the publisher and founder of Daily Kos (dailykos.com)