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Democrats face tough odds in fight for Senate control

It wasn't too long ago that the conventional wisdom said Democrats were likely to take the Senate. Conditions have clearly changed.
The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.
The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.
It wasn't too long ago that the conventional wisdom about 2016 leaned heavily in Democrats' favor: Hillary Clinton was in the driver's seat in the presidential race; Dems were well positioned to reclaim the Senate majority; and there was even some chatter about the House majority being up for grabs.
At least for now, it's fair to say the conventional wisdom has changed quite a bit. Republican control of the House is a near-certainty; Hillary Clinton's lead over Donald Trump has been cut in half; and Republicans are increasingly optimistic about holding onto the Senate.
The New York Times' Upshot, for example, maintains a frequently updated forecasting model showing which party is favored to control the Senate in the next Congress. A month ago, by a roughly two-to-one margin, Democrats were favored to be in the majority. As of this morning, however, according to this model, there's a 51% chance Republicans will be in charge.
Daily Kos has its own projections, and it too shows the GOP favored to keep its Senate majority. The Huffington Post's forecasting model tilts even more heavily in the Republicans' favor.
The math is pretty straightforward: Dems need a net gain of four seats to reach parity (a 50-50 Senate) and a net gain of five seats to claim a majority outright. There's really only one "blue" seat Dems are worried about -- Harry Reid is retiring in Nevada -- and if Catherine Cortez Masto comes up short, Democrats will need to flip five "red" seats for a tie and six for a majority.
That's not easy under the best of conditions. Democrats remain very optimistic about flipping "red" seats in Illinois and Wisconsin, and moderately optimistic about Indiana, Pennsylvania, and maybe New Hampshire. Both parties are certainly keeping an eye on races in North Carolina, Missouri, Florida, and possibly Arizona.
But the more one looks at that list, the more it seems Senate Democrats face tough odds.
You'll notice, by the way, that I didn't include Ohio in the mix. That's because, by all appearances, Sen. Rob Portman (R), who was expected to be one of the more vulnerable incumbents of 2016, appears increasingly safe. Politico reported the other day:

Ted Strickland is shifting his campaign strategy as national Democrats threaten to bail on him because of his sagging prospects to unseat Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). The former Ohio governor is canceling ads in Southwest Ohio in the Cincinnati and Dayton markets and shifting them toward the more Democratic areas of Columbus and Cleveland, according to sources familiar with the media buy. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Senate Majority PAC have dramatically scaled back advertising in the state, forcing Strickland to run his own underfunded ad campaign after those groups delayed or canceled TV runs this month.

The Columbus Dispatch reported last week on a recent presentation from Tom Lopach, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, who did not include the Ohio race among the top eight races Democrats are focusing on.
Asked why Ohio wasn't in the mix for Democrats, Lopach reportedly replied, "Portman has run a damn fine race," adding, "The rest, I'll have to tell you over a drink."
I reached out yesterday to a couple of contacts in Ohio who work in Democratic politics, asking how and why Portman has fared so well. I asked in part because I've long struggled to understand Portman's electoral success: he's a career politician with few accomplishments; he was the Bush/Cheney budget director when the federal budget was a complete mess; and he was the Bush/Cheney Trade Representative, working on trade deals that are not at all popular in Ohio.
So what gives? My contacts emphasized two points, starting with the fact that Portman raised an enormous amount of money for this race -- focusing heavily on his campaign coffers for years, long before Dems started eyeing his seat -- and has benefited greatly from outside support from far-right groups and benefactors, many of whom invested early to shore up the incumbent's support.
The other angle my sources noted is that Ted Strickland, the former governor Democrats recruited to take on Portman, was governor during the 2008 crash, which hit particularly hard in Ohio. It's not fair, and the message is inherently misleading, but Republicans have slammed Strickland on the state's economic performance eight years ago, even though the then-governor can't credibly be blamed for Ohio's downturn during an international economic crisis.
It's not over, of course, and there are still eight weeks remaining before Election Day, but a year ago, Ohio was seen as a key pick-up opportunity for Senate Dems. Few still believe that's true.