At this point, just four Senate races are in the toss-up column -- the Democratic-held seat in Minnesota that Sen. Mark Dayton is vacating, and three Republican-held seats: the one that Majority Leader Bill Frist will be leaving in Tennessee, plus the ones that Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island will be trying to keep. Sweeping the three GOP-held seats would get the Democrats only to 48 senators. Likewise, picking up the Minnesota open seat would not get Republicans much closer to their goal of 60.
So, if neither party can count on the most vulnerable seats to provide a big enough boost, where are the other opportunities that could be exploited? Senate recruiting is still in its early stages, but it's already clear that the two parties need to take very different paths to a possible breakthrough.
The GOP needs to focus on four first-term Democrats: Maria Cantwell of Washington, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Bill Nelson of Florida, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. President Bush won Nebraska by 33 percentage points and Florida by 5. He lost Michigan by just 4 points but lost Washington by 8.
The GOP's recruiting efforts have hit snags in Michigan and Nebraska, as first-tier challengers have declined to run. The party has yet to settle on a candidate in Florida.
Nebraska is much more Republican than Washington, but Republicans seem a lot more likely to field a top-quality challenger to Cantwell than to find someone willing to take on Ben Nelson, a former two-term governor. He's well known and well liked, making him a fairly difficult target. Cantwell is more vulnerable because she has had to spend much of the past four years retiring her debt from the 2000 race, which she won by just 2,229 votes.
Republicans can also focus on West Virginia and North Dakota, two red states where longtime Democratic incumbents are up for re-election. The GOP probably has just one or two viable potential challengers in each state. In North Dakota, GOP Gov. John Hoeven is considering taking on three-term Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad. No other Republican in the state could defeat the incumbent.
Republicans hope that West Virginia voters are growing tired of 87-year-old Robert Byrd, who was first elected to the Senate in 1958. But apart from Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, Republicans do not have a bench of potential challengers in the state. The sense is growing that Capito, 51, will opt not to run. Most observers think she won't risk a race against Byrd when she has a pretty good chance of ending up in the Senate or the Governor's Mansion if she bides her time.
Democrats need to follow a different road if they are to significantly increase their numbers in the Senate. There is less low-hanging fruit on the Republican side, so the Democrats will need to create opportunities. The party might get some help in the form of a hospitable political environment. The midterm election during a president's second term generally hurts the president's party. Plus, Republicans seem to be helping the Democratic cause by focusing on unpopular issues such as federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo case and the so-called "nuclear" option of abolishing senators' use of the filibuster against judicial nominees.
Democrats will need to recruit the right candidates who have the right messages and the ability to exploit the smallest vulnerabilities. For instance, Democrats are currently focused on Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who had a close call in 2000. (Bush scored a 19-point victory in the state in 2004, even as voters elected a Democratic governor.) Burns has been tainted by his ties to controversial GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and that could create the opening that Democrats need. Of course, they also need a challenger. Other states where Democrats hope to create similar opportunities include Arizona (Sen. Jon Kyl) and Ohio (Sen. Mike DeWine).
Both parties have long and very difficult roads ahead in trying to pick up more than just a seat or two in the Senate.