Statistician Nate Silver predicted Monday that the GOP will likely have 50 to 51 Senate seats after the 2014 midterm elections, potentially enough to reclaim a Democratically-controlled body since 2006.
"A race-by-race analysis of the Senate, in fact, suggests that Republicans might now be close to even-money to win control of the chamber after next year’s elections," wrote Silver at the FiveThirtyEight blog Monday.
Silver's prediction comes after former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer announced Saturday that he will not run for the state's open Senate seat in the upcoming midterm. This is a blow to Democrats who saw Schweitzer as the best chance to hold a seat occupied by Democrat Max Baucus since 1978, who will retire at the end of this term.
Spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee Brad Dayspring responded enthusiastically to Schweitzer's announcement, calling it a "pivotal, sea-change moment in our efforts to earn back the majority in the Senate."
Republicans need a total of five seats to gain a Senate majority (six if a Democrat takes back the New Jersey seat held by the late Frank Lautenberg, now being temporarily filled by a Republican appointee of Gov. Chris Christie.) As Silver notes, the "task will not be easy." But based on an analysis of every state's prospective candidates, Silver identified Democratic weakness in a number of vital Senate races beyond Montana.
In South Dakota, for example, much like in Montana, Democratic incumbent Tim Johnson will be retiring in 2014 and a strong Dem replacement, former congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, has declined to run. Given that South Dakota is a very red state, whichever recruit the Democrats find will be hard put to retain the seat, especially against a strong GOP opponent in former South Dakota governor Mike Rounds.
Silver says it's a "safe bet" that a Republican will steal the open seat in South Dakota. He makes the same prediction for the equally red West Virginia, where another retiring Democratic incumbent--John D. Rockefeller IV--will vacate the field for a strong GOP candidate like Rep. Shelley Moore Capito to capitalize on. After that, the Republicans need pick up only a few more seats in toss-up states like Louisiana, North Carolina, or Arkansas.
Silver, whose reputation as a election predictor is bolstered by a perfect record, state-by-state, in the last presidential election, makes a few caveats this time around.
"Local factors and candidate quality play an important role" in Senate races, he writes, adding that President Obama's approval ratings and economic outlook at the time of the midterm will be crucial as well. Silver goes on to remind us that in the past four election cycles "one party has won the vast majority of tossup races."
In other words, 2014 is likely to be a big year--we just don't know yet for which party.