It wasn't too long ago that most of Washington was expecting that the Republicans would add to their House takeover in 2010 by taking control of the Senate next year, no matter who was elected president. Just a year ago, the experts had the Senate divided 54-46 in favor of Republicans after this fall's election, with some giving the Republicans a fillibuster-proof 60 seats.
But Democratic successes in picking candidates and fundraising, coupled with bitter GOP primary fights, has analysts now expecting a chamber split 50-50, with a possibility that the Republicans get 51.
"The coin, when tossed on Election Day, might land on its side in the form of a 50-50 Senate. That would require the vice president, whoever that is, to tip the coin one way or the other," predicts Larry Sabato and Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia. Sabato was one of those in June 2011 who saw a path for the GOP to win 54 seats.
That fight for control is prompting a fundraising escalation, led by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which beat the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the second quarter by $1.6 million. And that's good news for the Democrats since few expect President Obama to break from his own campaign to help out Democratic candidates on the stump in the fall.
"We are cautiously optimistic. We've made great strides," said a top Senate Democratic strategist, "but it is still a tough map."
A key GOP strategist agreed with the coin-flip analogy, but said the races won't come into better focus until after Labor Day when more voters start to pay attention.
Republicans will still gain seats, according to GOP analysts, in states like Montana and Missouri. But primary infighting and a resurgent Tea Party has bloodied some Republican candidates, opening the door to a potential Democratic grab in states such as Nevada and Arizona. Plus, Massachusetts Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren is standing tough against incumbent Sen. Scott Brown, according to Democratic operatives.
But 2012 might be the last time the Democrats retain control of the Senate. The reason: In 2014, the GOP will be defending 13 seats to the Democrats' 20 and there are very few Republican senators who look to be in trouble. Plus, Democrats concede, if Obama is reelected, there is likely to be a backlash as voters finally feel the impact of Obamacare, high deficits and increased taxes.