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GOP Senate Prospects Still Lagging

In the two states where the GOP expected a challenge, Heller is doing better in Nevada (a few points up on Congresswoman Shelley Berkley) than Scott Brown is doing in Massachusetts (a few points down to Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren). Brown’s biggest problem is that most Massachusetts voters want the Democrats to retain control of the Senate, though voters seem to like Brown much better than Warren, a candidate tarnished by lies about her alleged Native American ancestry ("Fauxcahontas," as Warren was named by Mark Steyn).

The GOP will almost certainly win the Nebraska seat now held by retiring Democrat Ben Nelson. Deb Fischer is well ahead of Bob Kerrey, the former senator and governor. Two other seats that seemed like easy pickups for the Republicans a few months back are now more problematic. Republican Congressman Rick Berg is only slightly ahead in Republican-leaning North Dakota in an open-seat race against Heidi Heitkamp. In Missouri, Democrat Senator Claire McCaskill appeared to be the most vulnerable Democrat running for re-election this cycle until  an anti-abortion crusader, Congressman Todd Akin, won a three-way GOP primary.

Within days of his primary victory,  Akin put his foot deep into his mouth with inane comments about forcible rape and how women’s bodies respond to rape. After McCaskill took a solid lead,  the national Republican Party tried to convince Akin to drop out so that a candidate who would have a much better chance of winning could be selected to replace him and pick up the seat. Akin, bolstered by Mike Huckabee and other social conservatives, decided to stay in the race. At the moment, Akin is  trailing by  several points and is being badly outspent. There is a chance Akin can win if Romney wins big in Missouri and if some voters are lying to pollsters, perhaps too embarrassed to admit they are for Akin.

The GOP has a decent shot at picking up the Montana seat held by Jon Tester. Congressman Denny Rehberg has a small lead in a state where Romney is doing very well. Two other open-seat races that looked like tossups a few months back are now leaning to the Democrats. The biggest surprise is in Wisconsin , where a left-wing congresswoman, Tammy Baldwin, has opened up a lead over former Governor Tommy Thompson. So, too, in Virginia, former Governor Tim Kaine is running a few points ahead of former Republican Senator and Governor George Allen. For some former supporters, both Thompson and  Allen  seem to have passed their sell-by date.

The GOP came up with good candidates in two heavily Democratic states -- Heather Wilson in New Mexico and Governor Linda Lingle in Hawaii -- but both are well behind (10 points or more) their Democratic opponents in open-seat races. Florida seemed a good pickup opportunity, but Republican Congressman Connie Mack has been behind Senator Bill Nelson for months. Mitt Romney has opened up a lead in Florida and could give a bit of a boost to Mack down the stretch, but Mack still trails Nelson by high single digits.

In three other races, GOP contenders are making a spirited fight and one might spring an upset. State Treasurer Josh Mandel is a few points behind Democrat Senator Sherrod Brown in Ohio, but the gap has narrowed recently as Romney has gained in the state after the debate. In neighboring Pennsylvania, Democrat Bob Casey has a shrinking lead over challenger Tom Smith in a race that few thought would be competitive a few months back. Finally in Connecticut, Democrat Congressman Chris Smith has opened up a small lead over Republican Linda McMahon, the World Wrestling Federation executive, in a state where Barack Obama is underperforming this year, winning by a much smaller margin than in 2008.

The best bet is that the GOP will wind up with 48 seats, picking up Nebraska, North Dakota, and Montana, and losing Maine and Massachusetts. This assumes Republicans hold Nevada, Indiana, and Arizona -- all a bit shaky at the moment. The GOP could do better than 48, and the best chance for that is for Scott Brown to hold onto his seat in Massachusetts. Additional gains  could come from Wisconsin, Virginia, Missouri, Ohio, and Connecticut -- all states where the Democrat is now ahead. The GOP range at the end of the day could be 43 to 54, but more likely 46 to 51 . The possibility that the GOP could lose seats this cycle did not seem likely a few months back, but now it is as likely as getting a majority.