Republican hopes for retaking the Senate in 2014 improved substantially this weekend when Democrats' best option declined to run for Montana's open seat.
Democrats hold a 54 to 46 seat edge in the Senate, but Republicans are now considered the front-runners to capture the seats of retiring Democratic senators in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia. If the GOP runs that table, the party would be within striking distance of reclaiming the majority it ceded in 2006.
Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer's announcement over the weekend that he wouldn't seek the Senate seat there left analysts saying the battle for Senate control now comes down to races in Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana and North Carolina — four states that supported 2012 GOP presidential nominee Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney over President Obama in the November election.
"Of course, there are other potentially competitive seats — Democrats might have a shot at Georgia or Kentucky, and Republicans might have a chance in Iowa or Michigan — but for the time being, those four Romney-state Democratic incumbents look like the ones who will be charged with saving the Democrats' Senate majority," said Kyle D. Kondik, political analysts of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "Given the power of incumbents, I think I'd still give the Democrats a slight edge, but the overall race for the Senate seems pretty close right now."
Indeed, Democrats are holding out hope that can pull off a big upset in Kentucky, where state Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is challenging Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Polls suggest that it will be an uphill climb for Mrs. Grimes — though her father, Jerry, is the former director of the Kentucky Democratic Party and is friends with Bill Clinton, putting a powerful fundraiser in her corner.
Democrats have a much safer bet in the October special election in New Jersey, where voters will tap someone to serve the remainder of the late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg's term.
Newark Mayor Corey Booker, a Democrat, is favored to win the race and recapture the seat now held by Republican Sen. Jeff Chiesa, whom Gov. Chris Christie appointed as a placeholder.
Republicans are hoping this is the year they exceed expectations after two straight elections when they fell short, plagued by unforced errors and poor candidates such as Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana in 2012, and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada in 2010.
The 2014 map, though, appears to be working in the GOP's favor, with the most competitive races playing out in anti-Obama states, and with Democrats having to defend six seats where their incumbents are retiring, compared to two for Republicans.
"We have to take advantage of every opportunity we can to win seats — especially in states that are conservative leaning," said Clint Reed, Arkansas-based Republican consultant. "This is a great opportunity to do that, and Republicans have to cash in. They know that."
The National Republican Senatorial Committee welcomed the Schweitzer announcement, saying "we are in a strong position not only to win in Montana, but a step closer to the Senate majority in 2014."
Still Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report, said the GOP's chances of winning the Senate — while better — are "still less than 50-50."
"The most plausible path would be for Republicans to pick up Democratic open seats in South Dakota, West Virginia and Montana, unseating Mark Begich in Alaska, Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and holding onto Mitch McConnell and the open Republican seat in Georgia. It would require the GOP to pretty much run the table of currently Republican open seats," Mr. Cook said.
Mr. Reed said that "ground zero" for both parties could be in his home state of Arkansas, where Sen. Mark L. Pryor is gearing up for a likely match-up with Rep. Tom Cotton, a Republican and Army veteran who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The Pryor campaign announced Monday that it had raised $1.2 million in the second quarter of the year, and now has $4 million for his re-election fight. Mr. Cotton, meanwhile, raised $611,000 and has more than $1 million cash on hand.
"If and when Cotton gets in, I expect this thing to be a battle royale," Mr. Reed said.
Republicans, meanwhile, are lining up to challenge Sen. Mark Begich in Alaska.
Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and tea party favorite Joe Miller have announced their candidacies and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin told Fox News she has "considered" a run.
In Louisiana, Rep. Bill Cassidy and Rob Maness, a retired Air Force colonel, are seeking the Republican nomination to run against Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, who is running for her fourth term.
And in North Carolina, state House Speaker Thom Tillis and Greg Bannon, a tea party-backed candidate, are running for the GOP nod to challenge Sen. Kay R. Hagan, who rode into office in 2008 on the coattails of Mr. Obama's historic victory.
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