In the wake of Montana Sen. Max Baucus’ vote against expanded background checks, it was awfully ironic to see progressive groups threatening to challenge him in a primary with none other than former Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Yes, the same Schweitzer with an NRA-approved record on gun rights, who told National Journal in February he has “more [guns] than I need and less than I want.” For someone looking to promote gun control, Schweitzer would be one of the last Democrats to turn to.
No, the real reason Howard Dean and other progressive groups are so enthusiastic about Schweitzer isn’t about guns at all. That’s merely a smokescreen. The reason why they’re encouraging the popular former governor to run in the wake of Baucus’ sudden retirement is because he’s one of the few remaining true-blue populists left in the Democratic party. He boasts cross-party appeal in a conservative state by melding economic liberalism with social conservatism. He’s for a single-payer health insurance system and rails against moneyed interests, but is fiercely pro-gun and pro-drilling. He wins support from the blue-collar white voters that have left the Democratic Party in recent years. And looking at the 2014 Senate map and the worsening political environment for the party, Democrats are going to need those types of candidates now more than ever.
There’s been a lot written about the Senate seats Democrats are defending on the most conservative turf – West Virginia, South Dakota, Arkansas and Louisiana. But the most useful indicators for how the battle for the Senate will shape up will be in more politically-competitive states with working-class populations, like Montana, Iowa, Minnesota, and even Michigan. (Of note: All those states have gun ownership rates above the national average.) There’s a high potential for bubbling anger among those voters over the state of the economy, the implementation of the president’s health care law and the Democratic party choosing to prioritize social issues like gun control and immigration over focusing on the economic interests of the middle class.
That was the ticket to President Obama’s re-election victory – convincing skeptical voters that he was best-positioned to fight for their economic interests over the plutocratic Mitt Romney – but the White House has abandoned that tack in a second term, buying into their own hubris that the president received a mandate after a decisive but narrow re-election. Instead of focusing on economic growth, the president got sidetracked on the sequester. Instead of focusing squarely on immigration and its potential economic benefits, Newtown prompted him to spend valuable political capital on gun control.
Right now, given the political landscape and worsening environment for Obama, there’s a greater chance that the Senate could flip Republican than the House going the other direction. The key for Senate Democrats, both incumbents and challengers, is to prove they’re in touch with the anxieties facing many Americans. Schweitzer, who opened the doors of the governor’s mansion to average citizens, is a perfect fit in the Montana Senate race for that very reason. Their likely nominees in the other states have a more mixed track record. In the open seat to succeed retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, Rep. Bruce Braley is well-positioned to portray himself as a populist (he’s founder of the House Populist Caucus), but as a trial attorney and four-term congressman, his biography will be thoroughly scrutinized. Minnesota Sen. Al Franken boasts solid job approval numbers back home, but his background as a celebrity and former SNL funnyman doesn’t exactly scream working-class hero. And in Michigan, Rep. Gary Peters represents an urban Detroit district, beginning his career in finance as an executive at Merrill Lynch and Paine Webber before turning to politics. He’s a capable candidate, but Republicans have plenty to pore over.
With those opportunities, one would expect Republican candidates would be chomping at the bit to run. And while it’s still early, it doesn’t bode well that they haven’t landed recruits in any of these states -- despite all these races being winnable targets. Despite Baucus’ clear vulnerabilities, Montana was one of the few seats in Romney states where recruitment had been lagging behind. Freshman Rep. Steve Daines expressed interest in running, however, in the wake of the senator’s retirement. In Iowa, the party worried that deeply conservative Rep. Steve King would run and hurt their chances. That now looks less likely, but party leaders are no further along finding a substitute nominee, with lieutenant governor Kim Reynolds passing up a run this week. Their best option now rests on Rep. Tom Latham changing his mind. Rep. John Kline, one of the few battle-tested Republican candidates in the state, just announced he isn’t running against Franken. House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers would be a top candidate to run in Michigan, but libertarian Ron Paul acolyte, Rep. Justin Amash is expressing interest – which would be a Democratic dream scenario. An Amash candidacy could dampen Rogers’ interest and split the party asunder. (Sound familiar?)
If Republicans aren’t in the hunt for at least three of these seats come next year, count me skeptical they’ll win back the Senate. They’ll have a good chance at getting several of the six seats they’ll need in the deep South and conservative Mountain West. But they’ll need to break through the blue, working-class wall to win back the majority.