The Week That Kicked Off The Battle For The Senate

Reid Wilson
National Journal

Stop me if you've heard this one before: Open Senate seats coupled with vulnerable Democrats seeking re-election, present Republicans with opportunities to take back control of the upper chamber, if only they can avoid shooting themselves in the foot in the process.

This is not a repeat from the 112th Congress, when seven Democrats opted to retire instead of facing voters again. Nor is it a repeat of the 111th Congress, when four Democrats stepped aside and three more left their seats to serve in the Obama administration. This year, Democrats in Iowa, South Dakota, West Virginia, Michigan and Montana, now that Sen. Max Baucus has made public his retirement plans, have clarified and expanded the playing field. (That Republicans have been unable to win a Senate seat in New Jersey since 1972 means Frank Lautenberg's retirement isn't likely to make for a very competitive race).

National Democrats and Republicans will spend the next year recruiting and grooming candidates in each of those states, meaning it's far too early to handicap the entire field. But several intriguing contenders have emerged on both sides, highlighting the chances and challenges that will drive outcomes in the 2014 midterm elections.

Baucus's retirement may be a blessing in disguise for the Democratic Party. The six-term Democrat surely have drawn strong opposition from conservative groups looking to make inroads in a red state had he chosen to seek another term. Running against health care reform didn't deliver the results Republicans had hoped for in 2012, but Baucus might have been different. After all, Republicans rarely got to challenge a candidate who played such a key role as Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, did in crafting the legislation (Sens. Tom Harkin, Chris Dodd, Ben Nelson and Kent Conrad and Reps. David Obey and Bart Stupak, all of whom played high-profile roles in drawing up pieces of ObamaCare, all retired rather than face voters again).

In Baucus' place, Democrats quickly leaked the juicy gossip that popular former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer is leaning toward jumping into the race. Schweitzer presents himself as Montana personified, bombastically populist and folksy to boot. Though liberals had pushed him to challenge Baucus in a primary -- that there is no love lost between them is a poorly-kept secret in Montana -- Schweitzer once declared he wasn't "senile enough" to serve in the Senate.

Governors who move on to the Senate rarely enjoy their time. Former Delaware Gov. Tom Carper, now the First State's senior senator, told one political historian that his worst day as a governor was better than his best day as a senator. One wonders how Schweitzer would fare in a chamber that frustrates other former governors for its staid, languid pace.

Republicans, stung by a series of ultra-conservative candidates who seemed to try their best to lose winnable Senate seats in states like Delaware, Nevada, Colorado, Missouri and Indiana over the last two cycles, are working to recruit candidates who don't fall into the same trap this year. Guiding chosen candidates through competitive primaries will be the Washington GOP's biggest challenge over the next year. 

And they will not always be successful. When Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds said this week she wouldn't be a candidate for Harkin's seat, the Republican bench shrank a bit more, increasing the possibility that Rep. Steve King, a problematic candidate, will make a bid. Rep. Paul Broun, whom many Republicans privately worry is too conservative to win a statewide election in Georgia, has already declared himself a candidate for retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss's seat.

In Alaska, Joe Miller, the conservative activist and Sarah Palin ally who beat Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the 2008 Republican primary, then lost to Murkowski in the general election, is interested in running against Sen. Mark Begich. National Republicans would much prefer to see Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell jump in the race; Treadwell said this week he would consider the race and make a final decision over the summer, in plenty of time to raise the funds needed to run a formidable campaign.

On the other hand, Republican leaders in Washington were quick to rally around Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who seeks to become the first Republican to hold a West Virginia Senate seat since 1956. Capito will take flak from conservative groups who question her positions on fiscal issues, but Republicans have been working for years to get her into a statewide race for good reason: She can win.

Democrats may face their own divisive primary in South Dakota, where former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin said this week she is interested in making a comeback attempt. She might face Brendan Johnson, South Dakota's United States Attorney and son of retiring Sen. Tim Johnson; supporters of the younger Johnson are backing a draft movement, though Johnson himself has not commented on the race because his current position requires him to be apolitical.

The cycle is barely underway; even though Michigan Sen. Carl Levin said he would retire more than a month ago, no serious candidate on either side has formally declared a bid for his seat. There's also a lack of big-name contenders in Nebraska, where Sen. Mike Johanns said he wouldn't run more than two months ago. 

But this week's moves, from Montana to South Dakota and Iowa, are beginning to illuminate the contours of the 2014 political map -- and with them, the challenges that each side will face for the next year.