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Eight the Hard Way: Good News, Bad News for Senate Dems

Democrats are a little mopey because it looks all but certain that they will lose control of the Senate in 2012. Republicans need to gain only four of the 23 seats up for election next year and there are a bevy of Red-State Democrats who are ripe to be picked off.

In conservative states, Obama will be a drag on the ticket. In swing states, Obama will not likely have any coattails. An incumbent president with a 42 percent job approval rating might eke out a re-election, but it will be as a solo act, not part of an ensemble.

In 1996, Bill Clinton won re-election and Democrats still managed to lose two Senate seats. Obama is about 10 points behind where Bubba was in the polls at this point, so the chances for a big win by the Honolulu kid seem remote. And as he struggles, Obama will not be looking to add any extra burdens in the form of embattled Senate incumbents.

The other reason Democrats are glum is that as the conventional wisdom absorbs the notion that the Blue Team will lose control of the upper chamber, it becomes harder to raise the big money needed to keep vulnerable incumbents in place. When the cause looks lost, the big-dollar, corporate donors get scarcer.

The two Republican-held seats considered vulnerable to Democratic takeover next year have grown less so in recent weeks.

Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., seems to have struck the right balance with Bay State voters and polls show that rooting out the male-model moderate will be a tough task. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., has opted to drop his improbable re-election bid amid a sex and payola scandal. Republicans are much happier to be backing Rep. Dean Heller in an open-seat race than dragging a damaged incumbent.

But take heart, Dems.

Lowered expectations are usually blessings in politics. There isn’t any sign of the massive wave that wiped out the House Democrats in 2010. It will instead be a steady tide that will pull Harry Reid out of the majority leader’s office. By the time Election Day arrives, Democrats will have spun it so that anything short of Republicans gaining a 60-seat supermajority is really a loss for the GOP.

If Republicans take over it will not likely be with a stout majority but rather a bare one subject to raids across party lines and lots of bickering.

Also, there is an advantage to having a president who doesn’t have coattails. Rather than worry about being able to soak up the reflected glow of a popular incumbent, vulnerable Senate Democrats will be excused from running away from Obama. It will be every man for himself, and that’s good news when the big guy is struggling.

Now, on to the Power Politics Senate Democrats misery index. Here are, ranked by degree of difficulty, the eight toughest races for Democrats next year

1) Montana – Sen. Jon Tester remains the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent. He won his 2006 race amid a Democratic wave and against a weakened incumbent in Sen. Conrad Burns – and it was still a narrow win. Now, with Montana back to its bright-red roots, Tester is squirming over his votes for President Obama’s national health care law and global-warming fees. Rep. Denny Rehberg, who already represents the entire state, has a clear path to the Republican nomination and strong fundraising potential.

2) North Dakota – The retirement of longtime Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad means that this increasingly Republican state will likely be all-GOP in Congress. Neither party has produced a frontrunner for the nomination, but the Republican bench looks much deeper. National Republicans are particularly interested in the state’s tax commissioner, Cory Fong. But this race holds on to its second spot on political climate alone.

3) Missouri – Sen. Claire McCaskill has opened the door wide for the Republicans looking to unseat her. Her double-barreled scandal surrounding the plane owned by her and her developer husband – reimbursing herself for flights and then failing to pay nearly $300,000 in taxes – moves McCaskill up from fifth place to third. Republicans seem to be coalescing around former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, who has wasted no time in tying McCaskill to the high-flying scandal. This race was always going to be tough for freshman McCaskill, but this scandal may ground her for good.

4) Virginia – The decision by Sen. Jim Webb to not seek a second term was very happy news for Republicans, but as former Gov. Tim Kaine wheels towards leaving his spot as Democratic National Committee chairman and declaring for office, the outlook looks less bright. Kaine will be well-funded and will have the advantage of President Obama’s re-election campaign. Democrats benefitted greatly in 2008 from a surge in black voter turnout and expect to do so again in 2012. Republicans, meanwhile, will have to settle the hash between the man Webb beat in 2006, former Sen. George Allen, and Tea Party-favorite Jamie Radtke. Kaine’s impending entry and the Republican primary scrap mean this race moves down a notch on the Democratic danger list.

5) Nebraska – Health care remains a huge problem for Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson. Nelson’s initial support for Obama’s national health care law destroyed the aura of invincibility around the second-term incumbent and former governor. Obama and his law remain direly unpopular in the state and despite many efforts by Nelson to stand apart, he hasn’t yet gotten out of Obama’s shadow. Republican state Attorney General Jon Bruning looks to be on his way to a decisive primary win. While he will struggle to raise big money against a moderate incumbent like Nelson, races in the 1.8 million-resident Cornhusker State are relative bargain.

6) West Virginia – Freshman Sen. Joe Manchin has succeeded more than anyone in the Democratic caucus in running away from Obama early and often. It’s not surprising since Obama’s popularity in the coal capital of America may be lower than in any state in the nation. Manchin has ripped Obama on global warming and deficit reduction and joined Republicans in supporting several measures. What else would you expect from the guy who got elected by shooting Obama’s global-warming law with a deer rifle? Manchin’s march to the right has moved this race down three notches from No. 3. Having Obama on the ticket will still be a massive disadvantage to Manchin, but with no Republican challenger on the horizon, the rifleman can breathe a little easier.

7) New Mexico – The retirement of five-term Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman vaults New Mexico’s Senate race into the Power Politics elite eight. Bingaman would have been a shoo in, but his departure means serious trouble for the party. The good news for Democrats is that New Mexico has the largest Hispanic minority of any state. The bad news is that the Republican Party there reflects that diversity. New Gov. Susana Martinez and her Lt. Gov John Sanchez reflect the gains the GOP in New Mexico has made among Hispanic voters. Obama is expected to win the state again, but not with the 57 percent he carried in 2008. This race comes down mostly to which members of the state’s congressional delegation hop in the race. Many Democrats are rooting for Rep. Martin Heinrich to get in the race, fearing that former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, fresh off a losing gubernatorial race and still in the shadow of the scandals that plagued the administration of former Gov. Bill Richardson. Republicans, meanwhile, are facing a potential rematch of the 2008 primary when Rep. Steve Pearce and Rep. Heather Wilson clashed. Pearce won and then got swept out with the Democratic tide in his race with Democrat Tom Udall.

8) Florida – Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson has helped himself by picking a fight with the state’s controversial new Gov. Rick Scott over high-speed rail and nearly everything else. While Republicans are touting the popularity of freshman Sen. Marco Rubio, Nelson is zeroing in on the confrontational Scott. But the biggest problem for the GOP in this Republican-leaning swing state is that no heavyweights have gotten into the race yet. Republicans are giving a closer look now at George Lemeiux, appointed to serve out the term of former Sen. Mel Martinez. While his ties to former Gov. Charlie Crist could be toxic to primary voters, Lemeiux won fans on the right with his hard-line stances during his brief tenure.

Chris Stirewalt is FOX News’ digital politics editor. His political note, Power Play, is available every weekday morning at FOXNEWS.COM.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First” political news note and hosts “Power Play,” a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.”  He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.