The decision by popular former Democratic governor of Montana Brian Schweitzer not to run for the open Senate seat being vacated by Max Baucus has given a lift to Republican hopes of taking the Senate in 2014.
Schweitzer would have been a clear favorite going into the race, given his proven vote-getting and fundraising skills. His assumed candidacy explained the reluctance of GOP Congressman Steve Daines to challenge for the seat — a better possibility now that Schweitzer has declined to run.
Schweitzer’s candidacy was assumed in the political world following the surprise retirement announcement of Sen. Max Baucus (D) in the spring. The popular ex-governor remains voraciously ambitious in the political arena, and the Senate seemed like a decent stop on the way to what many people in and out of the state thought might be a run for president in 2016.
The field was effectively frozen as Schweitzer made up his mind. With him not running, look for Rep. Steve Daines (R) to come under heavy pressure to make the race. And while Democrats talk about State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau and state Auditor Monica Lindeen, neither woman has the proven electoral record (or even close to it) of Schweitzer.
It’s worth noting that Democrats have demonstrated their ability to win in Montana — even with a national wind blowing in their collective face. Sen. Jon Tester won a second term last November despite the fact that President Obama won just 42 percent of the vote in the state. But that was a race featuring a Democratic incumbent. Montana in 2014 will be an open seat.
Nationally, Montana becomes the third problematic Democratic open seat for the party. In West Virginia, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) is a clear favorite as Democrats have yet to convince a serious candidate to run. Ditto in South Dakota, where the two leading Democratic candidates took a pass while popular former governor Mike Rounds dodged a serious Republican primary challenge.
Add to the list of possible takeovers by Republicans in open seats the vulnerable incumbent Democrats Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. If the GOP can manage to win those 5 seats they will be agonizingly close to taking the Senate. Unfortunately, in some other races where they might have a decent chance — Iowa, Michigan, and Alaska — strong candidates with proven skills have not stepped forward to run. Sarah Palin’s entrance into the Alaska Senate race could be interesting, although the former governor is more popular outside her home state.
Incumbent Democrats have been running scared since the 2012 election and many of them have amassed large war chests that any Republican challenger will have difficulty matching. One interesting possibility is Scott Brown running in New Hampshire against incumbent Jeanne Shaheen. The former Massachusetts senator is being urged by some New Hampshire Republicans to make the jump to the far GOP friendlier Granite State. But Brown declined to run in the recent special senate election in Massachusetts and it’s hard to see him making a try for office in New Hampshire.
The rollout of Obamacare may change the political landscape significantly. If that’s the case, anything is possible, including some previously safe Democrats being moved to the “toss up” column. What’s clear at this point is that Republican chances for a senate takeover are trending upward. And at this point, with a year and a half to election day, that’s something to celebrate.