Thursday September 27, 2012 | 12:13 PM

A closely watched team of election forecasters has changed the ratings for two Maine races.

Sabato's Crystal Ball, run by well-known political pundit Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, changed the rating for Maine's Senate race from "likely Democratic/Independent" to "leans Democratic/Independent." Although a subtle shift, the change reflects growing optimism among Republicans that independent Angus King is vulnerable.

In Maine's 2nd House District, meanwhile, the Crystal Ball now considers that race "safe Democratic," again a slight shift from the earlier designation of "likely Democratic." U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat, is being challenged by Republican Maine Senate President Kevin Raye.

In the Senate race, Sabato and team pointed to recent polls suggesting that King's lead over Republican Charlie Summers and Democrat Cynthia Dill has narrowed in recent weeks. He also alluded to the strategy playing out in Republican camps trying to divide the Democratic vote between King and Dill, thereby allowing Summers to slide to victory with less than a majority -- just like Republican Gov. Paul LePage did in 2010.

"Democrats are determined not to let this opportunity — created by the retirement of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) — slip away," reads the Crystal Ball's explanation. "It may be that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will start to explicitly support King, or claim that a 'vote for Dill is a vote for Romney and Summers.'"

The Crystal Ball did not provide reasons for the redesignation in the 2nd District House race. My colleague Ben McCanna at the Morning Sentinel, however, recently pointed out that Raye has not received any of the $11.4 million recently spent by the National Republican Congressional Committee on adsB in 40 races.

While too early to tell, some believe that could signal lowered Republican hopes for beating Michaud. The Crystal Ball did not change its "likely Democratic" rating for Maine's 1st District House race between Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and Republican State Sen. Jonathan Courtney.

As for the overall fight for the Senate, the UVa team forecasts that Democrats could end up with a 51-49 if they win two of six projected toss ups. In the House, they predict that Democrats will pick up several seats but that the balance will remain weighted toward Republicans by a split of 236-199.

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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
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