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Senate Ratings Show GOP Still Holds An Edge

As the 2014 elections draw closer, the NBC News political unit will be regularly updating our ratings on the key races with particular emphasis on the big enchilada for the midterms -- the battle for control of the Senate.
Image: KY Senate McConnell
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., waits to speak during a campaign stop at Badgett Supply in Madisonville, Ky., Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014. McConnell is being challenged by Louisville businessman Matt Bevin in the republican primary. AP

GOP's 2014 Senate Advantage -- An Expanded Map:

Democrats have enjoyed a good April -- eight million have enrolled in the health-care exchanges, their candidates have begun fighting back on health care, and polling suggests that the political obituaries for the Southern Democrats up for re-election may have been a bit premature.

The bad news for Democrats is that Republicans have expanded the map -- they have multiple paths to winning back the Senate in November (or December, if there's a runoff in Louisiana). Case in point is the new Quinnipiac poll showing a neck-and-neck race in Colorado between Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) and Rep. Cory Gardner (R-CO). The fact is that even as Democrats improve their situation in the red states, Republicans continue to make more progress in the blue states (see Michigan, Iowa and even Oregon), leaving the national environment still tilted toward the GOP.

A further illustration of this expanded GOP map is our Top 10 Senate takeover list, in which Republicans have nine of the 10 best pickup opportunities. Democrats finally have some momentum on their side, but Republicans continue to have the map advantage.

Our Senate list (ranking in order of most likely to switch parties):

1. West Virginia (Open-D): She still has a May 13 primary to contend with, but Rep. Shelley Moore Capito is the strong favorite to succeed retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D). Democrats got a relatively strong challenger in Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, but Moore Capito will be tough to beat. And unlike most of the Republicans on this list, she is not having to deal with a major tea party challenge and has been able to run more comfortably as a pro-government Republican, which in a state so reliant on federal dollars is a good place to be.

2. South Dakota (Open-D): While national Democrats stubbornly refuse to get behind their candidate Rick Weiland, he does one potential advantage at allowing Democrats a chance at this seat.-- a third party candidate. Former Gov. Mike Rounds (R) has the clear edge in nabbing the GOP nomination and is still a strong favorite in November. But, the fact that former GOP Sen. Larry Pressler is running as independent could complicate things for Rounds. On the other hand, Republicans argue Pressler, an Obama supporter, could hurt Weiland almost as much as Rounds.

3. Montana (Open-D): Republicans have a better than 50-50 shot for a Senate majority thanks to Sen. Max Baucus' (D) decision to retire and Brian Schweitzer's (D) decision not to run for the seat. Dems elevated John Walsh to temporarily fill Baucus' seat, but GOP Rep. Steve Daines has the early edge. And Walsh still has to deal with a competitive primary. Democrats are a tad more committed at trying to help Walsh over the next few months, at least more so than his primary opponents. But will they be there for Walsh on Labor Day?

4. Arkansas (D): Welcome to the beginning of our more competitive senate race rankings. No candidate has seen his fortunes "perception wise" in Washington change more in the last 3 weeks than Sen. Mark Pryor (D), who is either leading or tied in multiple recent polls. He still has to run a nearly flawless campaign to beat Rep. Tom Cotton (R), but the good news for him is that he has a strong pulse with six months to go before Election Day. There had been a real concern 3 months ago that Pryor was slipping into Blanche Lincoln territory. Clearly not an issue now.

5. Louisiana (D): The true race here likely won't be in November during the candidate free-for-all; rather, it will be the December runoff if no one surpasses 50%. It's very possible the battle for Senate control will come down to a December runoff when the entire political world descends on the Bayou State. Oh, and the runoff would take place on the same day as the SEC Championship in college football. We're not sure if as political junkies and college football fanatics whether we should be celebrating this likelihood or lamenting it.

6. Alaska (D): It's hard to get a good feel for this race. Sen. Mark Begich (D) has incumbency and a famous name on his side (his father was the late Congressman Nick Begich). But the GOP has a big registration edge. And Republican establishment favorite Dan Sullivan seems to be in solid shape (for now) to win the GOP primary. One thing to keep in mind, it is EXTREMELY rare for any Democrat to get over 50% in Alaska. The good news for Begich, he may not need it.

7. North Carolina (D): We said it earlier in the week: This contest is likely your bellwether for 2014 -- your perfect "generic D" vs. "generic R" race. All eyes will be on the May 6 GOP primary: Establishment favorite Thom Tillis has the advantage. The question is the runoff if no one gets more than 40%. Democrats are not-so-quietly trying to help the more tea party favorite candidate, Greg Brannon.

8. Colorado (D): Look no further than the Quinnipiac poll, which had Sen. Mark Udall (D) at 45% and Rep. Cory Gardner (R) at 44%. But can Gov. John Hickenlooper, whose approval is above 50%, pull Udall across the finish line?

9. Michigan (Open-D): We have a feeling that Rep. Gary Peters (D) vs. Terri Lynn Land (R) might be one of the roughest races in the country. And one of the closest, but it is still Michigan and Peters has to be considered the slight favorite unless he stumbles badly.

10. Kentucky (R): Finally at No. 10, Democrats have their first pickup opportunity on the list. And just like in Colorado, it promises to be close, assuming GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell wins his May 20 primary. The New York Times/Kaiser poll had it McConnell 44%, Alison Grimes (D) 43%.

Five more to watch:

11. Iowa

12. Georgia

13. New Hampshire

14. Mississippi

15. Oregon

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