The marquee race of 2012, of course, is the hard-fought battle for the White House. But 33 Senate seats are also up for grabs this November, and along with them, control of the upper chamber. Currently, the Senate has 51 Democrats, 47 Republicans, and two independents who typically caucus with the Left. So while fewer than a dozen of this year's Senate races are truly competitive, the GOP only needs a net gain of four seats to seize control of the chamber for the first time since 2006 — the last time this year's incumbents faced voters. Ominously for the Democrats, they are defending 23 seats to the GOP's 10, and several high-profile retirements are making things even harder. Here, a look at the eight races you should have on your radar:
Who's running: After Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) surprised the political world by announcing that she would give up her seat, several high-profile Democrats expressed interest... until former Gov. Angus King (I) jumped in the race. Now, four lesser-known Democrats will compete in a primary, while six Republicans duke it out, including Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers.
Who's favored: King
Keys to the race: With King as frontrunner, this is less a Senate race than a "silent auction," says Jennifer Duffy at The Cook Political Report. King is a former Democrat and leans slightly to the left, but he won't say which party he would side with if he wins. Most handicappers predict he would align himself with the Democrats, "but he suggested recently that he might caucus with Republicans if they are in the majority," says Aaron Blake at The Washington Post. "Cue intrigue."
Who's running: Sen. Jim Webb (D) is retiring, so former Gov. Tim Kaine (D) will face former Sen. George Allen (R), who is trying to win back the seat he lost to Webb in 2006.
Who's favored: Tossup
Keys to the race: Kaine was head of the Democratic National Committee in the first years of the Obama administration, tying his candidacy to the electoral fortunes of the president. Virginia is a key swing state, and "the outcome of this race will largely be determined by which party claims Virginia’s 13 electoral votes in November," says Sabato's Crystal Ball.
Who's running: Sen. Scott Brown (R) is facing re-election against Democrat Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard professor and former Obama administration consumer advocacy official
Who's favored: Tossup
Keys to the race: Massachusetts is a very blue state that is expected to be an easy win for Obama, says The Washington Post's Blake, but Brown is tied or even with Warren because "a majority of voters just, well, like Brown." Both he and Warren have enviably high favorability ratings, but while "people admire Warren... they want to hang out — or have a beer — with Brown." If he can make the race about personality, not issues, he's got a good shot at keeping his seat.
Who's running: Sen. Ben Nelson (D) is retiring, and after much hemming and hawing, former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) decided to run for the seat he gave up to Nelson in 1994. On the Republican side, Attorney General Jon Bruning is in a tough primary fight with Tea Party–favored state Treasurer Don Stenberg.
Who's favored: Bruning, in both the primary and the general election
Keys to the race: Kerrey hasn't run for office in 18 years, and spent the past decade in New York City as president of The New School university ("insert image of overly chic reading glasses and cappuccino here," says Jennifer Steinhauer in The New York Times). He's trailing both Republicans by double digits in recent polls, and in the presidential race, Nebraska is surely going to vote for Obama's Republican challenger. The only thing that gives the Democrats "a puncher's chance in the Cornhusker State" is Kerrey's name recognition, the uninspiring GOP field, and the potentially nasty fight between Bruning and Stenberg.
Who's running: Sen. Herb Kohl (D) is retiring, and Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) is facing the winner of a crowded race for the Republican nomination — the best bets are former Gov. Tommy Thompson, hedge fund manager Eric Hovde, and state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald.
Who's favored: Thompson, if he wins the GOP primary; otherwise, Baldwin has a slight edge over the other Republicans
Keys to the race: Baldwin is probably slightly to the left of Wisconsin voters, and would be the first openly gay U.S. Senator, says Zaid A. Zaid at PolicyMic. But Thompson is vulnerable, too, because of his support for the individual mandate and other aspects of ObamaCare.
Who's running: Sen. Jon Tester (D) is seeking re-election against Montana's sole congressman, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R).
Who's favored: Rehberg, slightly
Keys to the race: The Tester-Rehberg contest is, oddly, turning into one of the most expensive in the country so far, with outside groups spending almost $3 million on TV ads — mostly attack ads, says Tim Murphy at Mother Jones. "And in Montana, your $3 million goes a long, long way." With so much money pouring into a small media market, "this race will come down to a simple question," says The Washington Post's Blake: "Has Tester established enough of an independent identity with voters in the state to avoid being morphed into a President Obama clone by Republican ad makers?"
7. North Dakota
Who's running: Sen. Kent Conrad (D) is retiring, and freshman Rep. Rick Berg (R) is slated to face off against former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D).
Who's favored: Berg
Keys to the race: Conrad's retirement was met with joy by the state and national GOP, but we're now hearing whispers "that Berg just isn't a particularly good candidate," says Sabato's Crystal Ball. Republicans seem "legitimately worried that he might boot away what should be a relatively easy pickup opportunity." Democrats, meanwhile, "believe that this is their sleeper race of the cycle, arguing that Heitkamp is underrated," says The Washington Post's Blake. But she'll probably have to outperform Obama by 10 percentage points to upset Berg.
Who's running: Sen. Daniel Akaka (D) is retiring. Former Gov. Linda Lingle (R) is the expected GOP candidate, and former Rep. Ed Case (D) and Rep. Mazie Hirono (D) are duking it out for the Democratic nomination.
Who's favored: Hirono, in the primary and general election
Keys to the race: Lingle is the only reason there's a tossup race in this super-Democratic state. Hirono lost to Lingle in the 2002 governor's race, but with native son Obama on the ballot this year, "is Lingle really going to run 20 points ahead of the Republican presidential nominee?" asks Sabato's Crystal Ball. It seems unlikely.