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Will the Tea Party Take the Senate? 8 Races to Watch

The Republicans may not win the Senate, but the Tea Party could take it hostage, thanks to millions of unaccountable dollars, post-Citizens United.

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Americans for Prosperity was founded by oil magnate David Koch, whose family foundations have funded climate-change-deniers for decades. Johnson told the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,  "I absolutely do not believe that the science of man-caused climate change is proven." He attributed global warming to sunspot activity. Silver casts the odds for victory in Johnson's favor, giving him a 96-percent chance of picking up Feingold's seat for the Republicans.

Utah: Mike Lee v. Sam Granato. Utah is a Republican state, so there's little surprise the Republican is favored to win this race. What was a surprise was the unseating of longtime Republican Bob Bennett at Utah's state GOP convention last summer, orchestrated in part by the great minds at FreedomWorks. Despite Bennett's conservative credentials, he wasn't right-wing enough on the business front to suit the deregulatory agenda of Dick Armey's organization. So they helped to pack the state convention with Tea Party activists who voted against Bennett as their nominee in a vote that should have been a formality, clearing the path for Bennett to once again represent his party. Jim DeMint appeared on video to endorse Mike Lee, an attorney with ties to the energy industry. As Andrew Belonsky reported for AlterNet, Lee once represented a firm that was trying to dump 1,600 tons of imported nuclear waste on the state he will likely represent come January.

Hell -- or its nuclear reactor -- would truly have to freeze over for Lee to lose this race, which Silver gives him a 0-percent chance of doing. Nonetheless, DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund isn't taking any chances, having spent $332,000 on Lee's behalf. (In fairness, some of that was spent backing Lee in a runoff primary that ensued between Lee and another Tea Party candidate, Tim Bridgewater.)

Colorado: Ken Buck v. Michael Bennet. That Ken Buck survived a gaffe-ridden primary against Republican establishment candidate Jane Norton, the former lieutenant governor -- even after he said Coloradans should vote for him "because I do not wear high heels" -- should tell you something of the mood of Republican voters in Colorado.

Buck has gone on to compare gay people to alcoholics, and to confirm his place in the GOP's forced-pregnancy caucus. (Like Sharron Angle and Rand Paul, Buck opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest.)

DeMint was one of Buck's earlier supporters, endorsing the former federal prosecutor at a July event emceed by Tom Tancredo, the Constitution Party candidate for governor who is running a surprisingly close race against Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, having all but knocked the Republican candidate, Dan Maes, out of contention. Tancredo made waves at the Tea Party Nation convention in Memphis earlier this year when he called for the reinstatement of literacy tests for voter registration, a device that was used for decades to keep African Americans from voting. (Tancredo is virulently anti-immigrant.)

The Senate Conservatives Fund has spent $710,000, including independent expenditures on Buck's behalf, according to its most recent filings. Rove's American Crossroads has spent nearly $6 million (including independent expenditures) on Buck's behalf, while Crossroads GPS has hashed out $213,000 in independent expenditures against Buck's opponent, Michael Bennet. Silver ranks Bennet's chances of losing to Buck at 62 percent.

Pennsylvania: Pat Toomey v. Joe Sestak. Call it an insurgent smack-down. Former Congressman Pat Toomey's threatened challenge to Arlen Specter in the Republican primary sent the longtime senator fleeing to the Democrats for cover. Then Rep. Joe Sestak took on Specter in the Democratic primary, and won. Having served as president of the ruthlessly anti-regulatory Club for Growth from 2005-2009, Toomey had a ready spigot of dollars to fuel his Senate bid; so far, his former employer has forked over $2.7 million on Toomey's behalf, largely for independent expenditures for ads against Sestak.