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Delaware Leaps to #1 in Senate Rankings; Is 60-Seat Majority Doomed?

Although we haven’t generally been updating our senate rankings more than once a month, I am making an exception in Delaware, where it was reported today that Mike Castle, Delaware’s lone U.S. Representative, will be running for the seat formerly occupied by Joe Biden.

Previously, Missouri had held the number one position, another open-seat race in which polling and fundraising numbers have been slightly more favorable to Democrat Robin Carnahan than Republican Roy Blunt. I’d estimate that the Democrats have somewhere between a 55 and 60 percent chance of taking over that seat, which is now held by Republican Kit Bond.

Castle’s odds are somewhere north of that range. With that said, the race is no gimme, particularly if as expected Castle is opposed by Joe Biden’s son Beau, who is currently Delaware’s Attorney General. Polling released by Rasmussen and PPP had shown Castle with leads of 5 and 8 points in an as-then-hypothetical matchup against Beau Biden. Castle recently turned 70 and has had some health issues and is unlikely to be as energetic his 40-year-old opponent. Although a gifted and experienced handler of his constituents, Castle may also run into trouble trying to balance some of the more radical elements of the his party with his centrist positioning, a problem common to all moderate Republicans. And, given that the Vice President’s son is running, we can expect the White House to go “all-in” on this race, although the Biden last name could be a fundraising magnet for Republicans as well.

Although there’s not a lot of territory to cover in Delaware, this race could get fairly expensive, as most of the state is in the pricey Phiadelphia media market.

Nationally, I think some of the gloomier analysis for Democrats are overwrought. If I assign rough probability estimates to each of the 38 available Senate seats changing hands, I come up with an average of about 3.5 Democratic seats being won by Republicans, but 2.7 Republican seats being won by Democrats. There is no particular reason to think that Carnahan can’t win in Missouri, or Lee Fisher or Jennifer Brunner in Ohio, or Paul Hodes in Ohio, or one of the Democrats in Kentucky. The Democrats also have more tenuous prospects in states like North Carolina, Texas, Louisiana, and possibly Iowa. Currently, I would guess that there is about a 55 percent chance that the Democrats will enter 2011 with fewer than 60 seats, a 20 percent chance that they’ll hold exactly 60, and a 25 percent chance that they’ll have more than 60. With that said, the situation has certainly deteriorated from what once looked to be an extremely fortuitous cycle for the Democrats, and since the outcome of individual races are correlated based on national conditions, the prospect of a net loss of as many as 5-7 seats for the party is distinctly possible.

It should also be born in mind, however, that the mechanics of the 60-seat majority has always been fuzzy. Several of the Republican candidates in this cycle, including Castle, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Charlie Crist of Florida, and Rob Simmons of Connecticut, have a track record as moderates and could form a working group of moderate Republicans along with Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. That is not to suggest that President Obama should be sanguine about his prospects to advance major legislation post-2010, as he’s had enough difficulty even with his large majorities. But if, hypothetically, an improving jobs picture had re-charged Obama’s approval numbers into the high 50’s or low 60’s by mid 2011, and the Democrats found themselves with only a 57-seat majority in the Senate but 4-5 Republican moderates to work with versus the two they have now, the situation would not be obviously inferior for them as compared with today. The House, where the entire chamber is up for re-election and more seismic-type shifts are possible, arguably remains the bigger worry for them.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.