The surprise announcement over the weekend from former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer that he will not run for the U.S. Senate next year has not only jolted his fellow Democrats, but may have brought Republicans one seat closer to the six they need to capture a majority in the Senate next year.
Widely considered the runaway favorite over any Republican to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, Schweitzer told the Associated Press Saturday that "I never wanted to be [in] the U.S. Senate. I kicked the tires and walked to the edge and looked over."
Schweitzer actually did run unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2000, four years before he won the first of two terms as governor.
Caught off-guard by Schweitzer's Saturday "stunner," Montana Democrats have since been scrambling for a new contender to hold Baucus's seat. The name most-heard now is that of state Supreme Court Justice Mike McGrath, a strong liberal and former state attorney general.
Among Republicans, Schweitzer's "no-go" increases the chances that Rep. Steve Daines, the state's congressman-at-large, will enter the Senate race.
"Steve seriously explored the Senate race in '12, but chose the House race after [incumbent Rep.] Denny Rehberg declared for the Senate," former Montana Secretary of State Bob Brown, who was Schweitzer's '04 opponent for governor, told Newsmax. "While he may have only been in the House two years, Steve is by far the best horse we could run in the race."
At this point, two relatively unknown conservatives are vying for the Republican nod: former state Sen. Corey Stapleton, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, and state Rep. Champ Edmunds. But neither has caught fire so far, state sources say, and both are likely to switch to a House race if Daines opts for the Senate.
With the odds tilting in favor of a pick-up in Montana — along with GOP candidates holding runaway leads for the seats of retiring Democratic Sens. Tim Johnson in South Dakota and Jay Rockefeller in West Virginia — the Republicans would take back the Senate in 2014 with victories in those three states, plus an additional three seats. There are 14 Republican-held seats and 19 Democrat-held seats up for election in 2014.
States where Republicans are highly competitive for a Senate pick-up in 2014 include:
Alaska: Having won a "squeaker" over the late Ted Stevens after the venerable Republican was convicted on corruption charges, Democratic Sen. Mark Begich is expected to face a heated re-election bid. The leading GOP hopeful is Lt. Gov. Mead Tredwell, but 2010 nominee and Sarah Palin ally Joe Miller insists he will also run. And Palin, the former Alaska governor, has teased that she will consider her own bid.
Arkansas: Often listed as the most vulnerable Democratic senator anywhere in 2014, Sen. Mark Pryor trails freshman Republican Rep. Tom Cotton in some polls.
Iowa: No sooner had veteran Sen. Tom Harkin announced his retirement than he and his fellow Hawkeye State Democrats rallied around Rep. Bruce Braley as his successor. But Republicans have an impressive array of young contenders that includes former U.S. Attorney Matt Whittaker, state Sen. Joni Ernst, and David Young, former top aide to Republican Sen. Charles Grassley.
Louisiana: In three trips to the polls, Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu has always survived tight battles and will likely face another tough fight next year. Already campaigning to oppose her is Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, a physician, and several other Republicans are reportedly eying the race.
Michigan: In a situation similar to that in Iowa, Sen. Carl Levin's retirement led to the quick alignment of state Democrats around two-term Rep. Gary Peters as their Senate candidate. With Republicans now holding every statewide office from the governor on down, former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land and physician Rob Steele are seeking the Senate nod. Also exploring it is Holland Mayor Kurt Dykstra, a strong conservative.
North Carolina: Republicans swept the governorship and both legislative chambers in 2012, and picked up a fresh House district. Now there is one sure GOP candidate against Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan — state House Speaker Thom Tillis — and two others seriously exploring the race: state Senate President Phil Berger and two-term Rep. Renee Ellmers.
In contrast, the two seats from which Republican senators are retiring— Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Mike Johanns of Nebraska — seem likely to stay in GOP hands. About the only Republican senator who may be in trouble next year is Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who will face a well-funded challenge from Kentucky's Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
With the 2014 elections 16 months away, there are always surprise twists and turns, as Schweitzer announcement very clearly was this weekend. But recently, those "surprise twists and turns" have worked to the Republicans' advantage.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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