Republicans received a boost in their attempt to win back the majority in the Senate next year when a former Democratic governor bowed out of Montana's open Senate race, a development that could further hamper President Barack Obama's agenda during his final two years in office.
Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Saturday he would not run for the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Max Baucus in 2014, dealing a blow to Democrats who considered the popular ex-governor their best chance of keeping the office. Republicans have not settled on a candidate in GOP-leaning Montana.
Republicans need to pick up six seats to recapture the Senate majority and are trying to take advantage of geography and history in their quest. Democrats must defend 21 seats, including seven in largely rural states that Obama lost in 2012, and the party that controls the White House typically loses seats during the midterm elections of a second-term president.
"For the first time in a couple of years, you can see the Democratic majority has never been on shakier ground," said Rob Jesmer, a Republican strategist and former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Democratic retirements in Republican-leaning states like West Virginia and South Dakota have given Republicans an advantage. The GOP has recruited popular Republicans for those seats, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds.
In Montana, Republicans hope to persuade Rep. Steve Daines or perhaps former Gov. Marc Racicot to mount a campaign, which could give them an edge in three of the six states they would need to win the majority.
The fate of the Senate could then be decided in four states that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney won in 2012 and are held by Democratic incumbents: Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.
Republicans view Rep. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana as a strong challenger to Landrieu, a perennial GOP target, and hope Rep. Tom Cotton, a Harvard-educated lawyer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, will challenge Pryor in Arkansas.
Alaska and North Carolina could offer unpredictable primaries. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the party's 2008 vice presidential nominee, said she may run for the Senate in the Republican primary against Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and Joe Miller, a tea party favorite. In North Carolina, state House Speaker Thom Tillis and Greg Brannon, a physician with tea party support, want to challenge Hagan, but they could be joined by others, including Rep. Renee Ellmers.
Prominent Republicans have passed up opportunities to run in states like Iowa and Michigan, where Democratic incumbents have announced their retirements. Reps. Bruce Braley of Iowa and Gary Peters of Michigan are seeking the open seats, giving Democrats an edge in keeping them.
Schweitzer's decision surprised many Democrats, who viewed him as their best chance in Montana despite recent reports about the ex-governor's ties to nonprofit groups that Republicans intended to raise in the Senate campaign. It jumbles the primary with a potential field of largely untested candidates that could include state auditor Monica Lindeen, state school Superintendent Denise Juneau, Brian Morris, a Montana Supreme Court justice, and Stephanie Schriock, the president of EMILY's List, the powerful fundraising group for Democratic women.
Democrats said they remained confident they could hold onto Montana's seat and maintained that Republicans would need to pull off major election victories to win back control.
"Only three Democratic incumbents have lost re-election in the last decade," noted Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a reference to the defeats of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota in 2004 and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin in 2010.
Obama's party, however, has fewer ways of going on offense. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky remains one of their top priorities for 2014, but Obama is unpopular in Kentucky and McConnell is building a large financial advantage against his likely Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state.
Democrats also view potential success in Georgia, where Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, may enter the race. Georgia remains a Republican stronghold and several Republicans are vying for an open seat created by the retirement of Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss.
Fifteen months before the 2014 midterms, Democrats say history could repeat itself. They say Republicans could face more polarizing primaries like the ones that created problems in 2012, when some tea party Republicans won bruising primaries over more mainstream Republican candidates and then faltered against Democrats.
"The map was always going to be a challenge but the Democratic incumbents are seasoned political veterans who have run difficult campaigns before and are not taking anything for granted," said Penny Lee, a Democratic strategist and former adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "As 2012 proved, those who predict outcomes a year out do so at their own peril."
© Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.