In a column last weekend, I warned that the Democrats' chances of keeping control of the Senate this year look increasingly bleak. That wasn't a value judgment on my part, merely an assessment of the political landscape. Some readers were pleased, others weren't.
On Wednesday, the Cook Political Report, a widely respected firm that forecasts congressional elections for a living, issued a new outlook for the Senate — and for Democrats, the verdict was even bleaker than before.
Cook's chief Senate watcher, Jennifer Duffy, moved three races in which Democratic incumbents are trying to keep their jobs from the "leaning Democrat" category into the "tossup" column: Alaska (Sen. Mark Begich), Louisiana (Sen. Mary Landrieu) and North Carolina (Sen. Kay Hagan). That's bad news for those Democrats.
On the other hand, Duffy also moved two Republican seats into the "tossup" column: Georgia, where Sen. Saxby Chambliss is retiring, and Kentucky, where Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell is in an unexpectedly tough race. That's good news for Democrats.
Two more seats currently held by Democrats were already rated as toss-ups: Arkansas (Sen. David Pryor) and Michigan (where Sen. Carl Levin is retiring).
Duffy properly noted that it's only March and not too much should be read into these ratings yet. "Control of the Senate is a jump ball, and no Democratic Senate incumbent is toast … today," she wrote.
Still, here's how the arithmetic works: Republicans need six more seats to win control of the Senate. They're almost universally expected to grab three seats currently held by Democrats (in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia).
If, on top of those, the GOP can win only three of the seven "tossup" seats, a Republican will be the next Senate majority leader. It just might not turn out to be McConnell.
If any of you Democrats have had the fortitude to read this far, here's one small ray of hope: There might be a competitive race in one of the nation's most conservative states, Mississippi.
Sen. Thad Cochran, a six-term Republican, faces a tea party-fueled challenge in the June 3 GOP primary. His Republican opponent, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, is getting serious support from national conservative groups including the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth.
Democrats are hoping McDaniel will win that primary and turn into the GOP's next Todd Akin, the Missouri Senate candidate whose views were too toxic even for many conservative voters. How controversial is McDaniel? Well, he once said he wasn't sure that he would have voted for emergency aid after Hurricane Katrina — in a state that was one of the hardest hit by the 2005 storm.
If McDaniel wins the GOP nomination, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee says it will pour money into Mississippi to support the likely Democratic candidate, former Rep. Travis Childers. So there's one more race to watch.