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Dems face tough Senate battle as Herseth Sandlin bows out

Former Rep.
FILE - MARCH 25:  According to reports March 25, 2013, South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) has announced that he will retire when his term ends in 2014.  WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 14:  Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) listens during a hearing...
FILE - MARCH 25: According to reports March 25, 2013, South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) has announced that he will retire when his term ends in 2014. ...

Former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) said Monday that she won’t run for Senate, making the Democrats’ fight to keep the seat in their column even more difficult.

"While I know you share my confidence that working together we could win a statewide race next year, I’m also confident that the decision not to run is the right decision for Max, Zachary, me and our entire family," Herseth Sandlin wrote on her Facebook page.

The former congresswoman’s pass leaves Rick Weiland, a former aide to Tom Daschle, as the only Democrat yet in the race. Weiland has the former Senate majority leader’s blessing for his bid, and in his announcement last week indicated that another top Democratic prospect, Johnson’s son and U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, would also take a pass.

Weiland isn’t in the top crop of recruits Democrats had wished for here: He’s lost two primaries for the state’s lone seat in Congress, including to Herseth Sandlin in 2002. Progressives have met his candidacy positively but that may not be a boon to him in a state that President Obama lost by 22 points last year.

For now, Democrats’ best hope seems to be wishing for a bruising GOP primary. It could come to fruition. Former Gov. Mike Rounds is already in the race, but he’s not the favorite of some conservative groups, and Rep. Kristi Noem, who defeated Herseth Sandlin in 2010, is still weighing a bid. But whoever emerges, and no matter how messy the primary gets, that’s still a risky strategy for Democrats, and either Rounds or Noem would start out with an advantage in the increasingly red state.

With the Democrats’ likely best bet out, South Dakota is now inches the way of West Virginia for seats they must defend. Without a strong recruit in both of their most difficult states, these both may be increasingly lost causes for Democrats. As detailed last week, the Senate map for Democrats’ is daunting, forcing them to play defense in nine of the top 10 races in 2014.

And in their two offensive states they hope to put in play, Democrats haven’t officially landed candidates yet, either. In Georgia last week, moderate Democratic Rep. John Barrow passed on a bid, but Democrats are privately more bullish about Michelle Nunn’s ability to put the state in play, citing her appeal with the female voters and her famous last name in the state (her father, Sam Nunn, was in the Senate from 1972 until 1997). In Kentucky, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is mulling a bid.

But it’s not just Democrats who face recruitment disappointments. The firewall to defend their six-seat majority won't be in West Virginia or South Dakota. Instead, it comes against highly vulnerable incumbents in Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana, and North Carolina. Republicans don't have slam-dunk candidates officially in those, and could also have primaries in many of the races. In both Iowa and Michigan, where Democratic-seats could be in play with a strong recruit, Republicans haven’t landed candidates yet.

The bottom line so far in the Senate landscape for 2014? Both parties are struggling to get candidates to stay and to run in difficult races to join an increasingly polarized body.