Politics

How One Week Changed the Entire Senate Landscape

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Just last week the Republicans were feeling pretty optimistic about their chances of recapturing the United States Senate in 2012.

A few high-profile retirements on the Democratic side of the aisle gave the GOP a strategic opening to take control of a chamber that they hadn't run since before 2006. This week, however, that opening is looking a whole lot smaller.

Two key announcements hit the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee like a one-two punch. The first came from former Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.

Kerrey had previously insisted that he had no interest in running for the open seat being vacated by long-serving moderate Democrat Ben Nelson, but in an about face that must have had Democratic activists cheering in the streets, Kerrey declared that not only was he interested in the seat, but he was prepared to declare his candidacy. All of a sudden a seat that looked like a sure pickup for the Republicans in 2012 became hotly contested.

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Then came the bad news out of Maine. Moderate Republican Olympia Snowe announced on Wednesday that she would not seek another term in the Senate. Snowe, who is independently wealthy, cited partisan discord in Washington as the primary reason for her surprise departure.

Although both of Maine's sitting senators are Republicans, the state generally votes Democratic in national elections and is expected to go for President Obama by a significant margin. The popular Snowe could have easily won another term, thus securing the seat for the GOP, but without her the path is clear for one of the state's Democratic representatives to make a bid for a promotion. Her departure makes the Maine seat the Democrats' best chance for a pickup this cycle.

The Democratic party currently holds 53 seats in the Senate. The Republicans were hoping for a net gain of three to four seats in 2012. That was assuming they picked up one in Nebraska and retained the seat in Maine. Now, with both seats in question and likely leaning blue, their prospects for making big enough gains to flip the chamber are looking pretty bleak. North Dakota is probably in the bag for the GOP and Virginia still looks promising, but in Massachusetts there's a good chance Scott Brown will go down to consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren, making the Republican math that much tougher.

Look for both Nebraska and Maine to be the decisive battleground states for control of the senate in 2012.