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Schweitzer decision complicates Democrats' 2014 Senate math

With former Montana Gov.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2008.  (Photo by Paul Sancya/AP)
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2008.

With former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s surprise decision over the weekend not to run for Senate, an already difficult 2014 map for Democrats is now even harder.

The popular former governor’s candidacy had been long expected, and he’d already been interviewing staff and consulting firms, according to several Democratic sources. Schweitzer, whose folksy, D.C.- hating shtick may have made him an appealing candidate, told the AP he “never wanted to be in the U.S. Senate.”

There was increasing worry among Democrats that Schweitzer’s possible ties to “secret money” groups could become a liability, and Republicans were already  touting him as an opposition researcher's dream. Still, he was their best shot at holding the seat, and his decision is a blow to their chances in the Treasure State. Democrats may have been narrowly better off without retiring Sen. Max Baucus on the ballot if Schweitzer ran, but without the former governor, their bench is thin.

Since Daily Rundown's last rankings in May, Schweitzer’s decision and other events have prompted several changes in the seats most likely to flip party in the coming elections. While West Virginia and South Dakota remain the biggest Democratic headaches, where they still don’t have strong recruits, and Montana has now shot up as a prime takeover, too. With Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes making her bid official, Kentucky now cracks the top 10 too, becoming the best Democratic offensive opportunity they have.

It’s still a narrow path for Republicans to get the six seats they need for the majority, and they still need recruits in several states and to navigate some possibly messy primaries, but there’s still an increasingly plausible way forward.

1. West Virginia open (Rockefeller, D). GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito continues to steamroll ahead in this open-seat contest, raising over $770,000, though that’s a drop from her first quarter numbers. She's still not the favorite of conservatives, but they haven't come up with a credible alternative, and Democrats haven't come up with an alternative at all. Their likeliest candidate, attorney Nick Preservati, passed on the race, and now they seem to be looking to Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, who had a disappointing 2011 primary loss for governor. This one continues to move further into the GOP column in the state where President Obama got just 36% of the vote.

2. South Dakota open (Johnson D). Republican Mike Rounds raised $600,000 this past quarter, a step up from his first filing period, while Democrat Rick Weiland, left standing after both Tim Johnson's son Brendan and former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, passed on the race, raised a paltry $105,000.  Rounds will have primary opposition from state Sen. Larry Rhoden, but Rounds is the heavy favorite as this seat moves increasingly toward the GOP.

3.  Arkansas (Pryor, D). As a conservative Democrat, Pryor’s getting attacked from both sides of the aisle. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s anti-gun group has run ads against him for opposing comprehensive background checks, and urged donors not to donate to his campaign. But Pryor was the first Senate candidate on air, touting his gun vote as a break with his party. He need to differentiate himself in this increasingly red state, as a likely race with freshman Rep. Tom Cotton, a conservative favorite, looks more and more likely.

4. Montana open (Baucus, D). This one shoots up on our list after Schweitzer passed on a bid. The Democrats' bench here is thin, but so is the GOP’s, making it just a notch below Arkansas until the primaries on both sides become clearer. With Schweitzer now out, former Gov. Marc Racicot becomes less likely to run, and freshman at-large Rep. Steve Daines becomes more likely. The Democratic jockeying begins anew, with immediate focus turning to state schools superintendent Denise Juneau, state Insurance Commissioner Monica Lindeen, or Emily's List President Stephanie Schriock. But Democrats still need a strong candidate to keep this one in play

5. Alaska (Begich, D). Former VP nominee Sarah Palin's latest flirtation with running for Senate is likely just that, though it could make for a good fundraising vehicle for Democrats. Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell is becoming the GOP favorite, though Palin acolyte and 2010 GOP nominee Joe Miller is in. But don't expect Miller to get the backing of conservative groups who doubt he can be a credible nominee against sitting Sen. Mark Begich. Still, as a Democrat in a red state, Begich is making the right moves, and the GOP primary here is still worth watching.

6. Louisiana. (Landrieu, D). The two-term Democratic senator, Mary Landrieu, has never had impressive victories, and after Obama lost the state by 18 points last year, her task becomes even harder. Landrieu raised an impressive $1.67 million in the second quarter of the year, bringing her war chest to more than $4.8 million for next year’s showdown. GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy brought in an improved $1.1 million, bringing his cash on hand to $3.2 million, which he’ll need to introduce himself statewide and to fend off possible primary opposition, too.

7. North Carolina. (Hagan, D). The freshman Democrat banked $2 million this past quarter and has $4.2 million cash on hand in the Tar Heel State, as Republicans are still reportedly searching for a top candidate here. Speaker Thom Tillis is already in, but he could be dragged down by continuing protests at the state capitol and low approval ratings of the state legislature. Speculation has now turned to Senate GOP leader Phil Berger and Rep. Renee Ellmers. Democrats are quick to point to the unsettled GOP race here, but Hagan’s still running in a state that Obama narrowly lost in 2012

8. Kentucky (McConnell, R). Democrats landed their top recruit here against the Senate minority leader, but Alison Lundergan Grimes' rollout was underwhelming, starting late, and absent a new campaign logo or website. . Democrats dismiss that as trivial. The coming quarter will be the true test of just how much muscle and heat Grimes can put on Sen. Mitch McConnell. The minority leader’s approval ratings aren’t great, and though he’s not the favorite of conservative groups, there’s no primary challenger waiting in the wings. This is still a red state and McConnell has the edge, but this race will be nasty and expensive. McConnell raised $2.3 million the last quarter and has $9.6 million banked for the challenge.

9. Iowa open (Harkin, D). Republicans have a crowded primary but no stellar recruit still against de facto Democratic nominee Bruce Braley, who pulled in $1.25 million over the past three months and has $2 million in the bank. The Hawkeye State could still be an opportunity, and state Sen. Joni Ernst just jumped in the GOP primary, but Republicans certainly have better targets.

10. Michigan open (Levin, D). Republicans didn't really believe Rep. Mike Rogers would give up his plum intelligence committee perch to wage a risk race for Congress, and they were always at a disadvantage in the Wolverine State. For Democrats, Rep. Gary Peters has $1.8 million in the bank. In the GOP field, former secretary of state Terri Lynn Land is in the race, but tea party Rep. Justin Amash could still run, too.

Honorable Mention. Georgia (Open; Chambliss, R). The messy GOP primary is certainly worth watching, . Democrats believe political scion Michelle Nunn would run better with women and African-American voters than conservative Rep. John Barrow ever would have, though she's still yet to officially announce. Nunn has to prove her own political chops, but Republicans have to produce a solid nominee in the Peach State that doesn't cause them too much worry heading into 2014.