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The Exchange: Ranking Senate Races

Today, we debut Politics Nation's Exchange, where we rank the big Senate races up for election in 2008. We've ranked the races based on the order in which we think they are most likely to change hands -- that is, the number one race is the seat most likely to switch from one party's control to the other.

Bottom line: it's an ugly year for Republicans, and it's probably not going to get much better. With the number of GOP open seats rising, the fundraising gap between the two parties widening and all the breaks seeming to favor Democrats, Republicans are looking at another disappointing year in 2008, though a lot more dominoes would have to fall for Democrats to break the magic 60 number.

Agree? Disagree? Drop us a line, and make sure to trade your contracts in RCP's Fantasy '08 stock exchange.

10. Alaska: (R) A recent report on National Public Radio suggested that Alaska has three main sources of revenue: Oil and gas drilling, tourism, and Sen. Ted Stevens, who has brought billions to the state over his long career. But with Stevens under increasing scrutiny for his role with the Veco Corp., retirement rumors are spreading, and over the weekend even Gov. Sarah Palin, a fellow Republican, got into the act, saying Alaskans needed to hear a better explanation from Stevens. If Stevens steps down, Republicans would be favored to hold the seat; possible candidates would include Lieutenant Gov. Sean Parnell, former State Sen. John Binkley, who ran for governor in 2006, and several incumbent legislators. Democrats, though, have two strong candidates -- 2006 Lieutenant Gov. nominee Ethan Berkowitz and Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, whose father served in Congress. Begich would seem to be the stronger candidate; the last Democrat elected statewide, Tony Knowles, also served as mayor of the state's largest city.

9. South Dakota: (D) Sen. Tim Johnson's medical issues continue to raise questions about whether or not he will retire, though his recent return to the Senate indicates he's not quite done yet. If he does retire, Democrats would likely turn to Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who is used to difficult races and is known because of her statewide district. Republicans have a problem, in that no strong challenger has emerged to face Johnson, and even Herseth got a relatively easy ride in 2006. That all changes, though, if Gov. Mike Rounds (R) would move to replace Johnson. Rounds is one of the most popular governors in the country, and if he makes a race, he would become an immediate front-runner and the GOP's best pickup opportunity of the cycle.

8. Minnesota: (R) Sen. Norm Coleman came to Washington under less than ideal circumstances -- following the death of his opponent in 2002, Paul Wellstone. He is somewhat popular in the state, but Minnesota is still Democratic, and in a year less than favorable to the Republican Party, Coleman, while the initial favorite, will have his work cut out for him. His Democratic opponent will be the winner of a primary between comedian Al Franken and attorney Mike Ciresi, both of whom fall short as Democrats' ideal nominees. Still, Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty came within a whisker of losing to a less-than-stellar Democratic challenger in 2006, and with a similar national tide against the GOP, Coleman could find himself in a nail-biter.

7. Nebraska: (R -- Open) His Senate career over, the race to succeed Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) has heated up incredibly quickly. Like New Hampshire, both parties got their strongest potential candidates. Unlike New Hampshire, where Democrats got out of the way of former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, Republican former Gov. Mike Johanns may face a contested primary. It is unclear how much a challenge from Attorney General Jon Bruning will distract Johanns, but the GOP doesn't need the fight in a strongly Republican state. If the Republican nominee faces former Sen. Bob Kerrey, who is flirting with a bid, only Johanns would be considered a favorite against Kerrey. Johanns would be a heavier favorite against Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey or 2006 congressional candidate Scott Kleeb. With Kerrey in the race, Democrats will spend money here. Without Kerrey, this race moves much farther down the list.

6. Maine: (R) Home of two of the most popular senators in the country, Maine is a reliably Democratic state that has elected Republican senators for the past several terms. Senior Sen. Olympia Snowe won her first race with 60%, and has improved in her two re-election bids, winning in 2006 with 74%. Junior Sen. Susan Collins, up in 2008, won her first race with less than 50% of the vote, though she earned 58% in 2002. Still, Democrats got their top recruit -- Rep. Tom Allen -- and both candidates will be well-funded. Early polls have showed Collins running ahead, and her skepticism of the war in Iraq should help her. Allen, however, will not go quietly, and will likely make this one of the nation's top races.

5. Oregon: (R) Incumbent Gordon Smith is used to tough races. Running in a special election in 1996, Smith lost to fellow Sen. Ron Wyden by less than 20,000 votes; he won a regular election later that year by just over 50,000 votes. Smith is a talented politician, and outran a strong candidate in 2002 by 16 points. Democrats, too, failed to recruit their top choices -- Rep. Peter DeFazio and former Gov. John Kitzhaber first among them -- and have settled on State House Speaker Jeff Merkley. Still, Merkley is getting his house in order early (though he faces a primary) and fewer Oregonians will be willing to vote Republican than they were in 2002, a good year for the GOP. Smith's position on Iraq has evolved, and he'll need to hope he's convinced Oregon voters if he wants to hang on.

4. Louisiana: (D) After Hurricane Katrina, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) lost thousands of her voters in Democratic New Orleans. Now, faced with the possibility of Democrat-turned-Republican John Kennedy as her opponent, Landrieu faces the fight of her political life. She's not taking the race lying down, though, and both candidates will have national support and huge bankrolls. If Rep. Bobby Jindal (R) can't get 50% to win the gubernatorial election in the first round of voting, Landrieu's turnout operation works, and she would have a strong chance in 2008. If Jindal wins outright this year, Landrieu's fortunes will take a dramatic downward turn.

3. Colorado: (R -- Open) Like Virginia and New Hampshire (see below), Colorado has trended Democratic of late. The state legislature is now in the hands of Democrats, and Bill Ritter and Ken Salazar have won statewide elections to take over previously Republican seats. Now, former Rep. Bob Schaffer is the best candidate Republicans can field, while Rep. Mark Udall, the Democrats' strongest possible choice, has been preparing for the race for years. Udall is more liberal than Ritter and Salazar, but Schaffer is not the best the GOP could do. Udall has raised a bundle of cash, and national Democrats are all but assured that this seat is theirs for the taking.

2. Virginia: (R -- Open) In elections for the Commonwealth's two Senate seats and the governor's mansion, no Republican other than retiring Senator John Warner has won since George Allen beat Chuck Robb in 2000. Now, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D), who remains popular around the state, has jumped in the race to succeed John Warner. A divisive Republican primary would leave the GOP with either conservative former Gov. Jim Gilmore or more moderate Rep. Tom Davis, while Warner's path to the Democratic nomination is clear. No matter the winner of the GOP race, Warner starts out as the heavy favorite.

1. New Hampshire: (R) No state felt the Democratic wave in 2006 as much as New Hampshire did. Democrats picked up more than 80 seats in the State House, won control of the State Senate and kicked out two Republican members of Congress. All that happened as the incumbent Democratic governor won with more than 70%. Early polls show a rematch between former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen and Sen. John Sununu, which narrowly went to Sununu six years ago, favoring Shaheen by wide margins. Also six years ago, Republican Craig Benson shared the top of the ticket with Sununu and won the governor's mansion. This year, Democrat John Lynch, whose disapproval ratings have never climbed above 15%, could boost Shaheen's numbers quite a lot.