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A GOP Senate Now Appears Plausible

A Republican Senate in 2014 looked like a longshot after the GOP blew huge opportunities in North Dakota, Missouri, and Indiana. But the GOP caught a huge break this morning, and a GOP Senate is looking like a realistic if still unlikely possibility—even without an anti-Democratic wave.

The big news—perhaps the biggest Senate news of 2013—is that Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer decided not to run for Montana’s open Senate seat.  Many thought Schwietzer would run and win—polls showed him over 50 percent and he has strong approval ratings. Now there’s no obvious candidate for Democrats in Montana, a state that will vote for a populist, western Democrat, but still voted for Romney by 14 points last November.

With the GOP’s odds suddenly looking much better in Big Sky Country, their road to 51 seats in the Senate is looking much clearer. Republicans will need to pick-up six seats to make Mitch McConnell the Senate Majority Leader, as Democrats will hold 55 Senate seats after Cory Booker wins in October and Vice President Biden would cast a tie-breaking vote in a divided chamber. Republicans start with easy pick-up opportunities in South Dakota and West Virginia, two open seats on GOP friendly turf where Republicans have a strong candidates and Democrats do not.

From there, things get more difficult. Until today, Democrats seemed better positioned in three open races in Michigan, Iowa, or Montana. So Republicans were looking at the possibility of needing to sweep four Democratic incumbents in red states: Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Pryor in Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska, and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.

The GOP could easily beat Pryor or Landrieu, who only won by 6 points against a strong challenger in 2008. That doesn’t augur well for how she will fare with lower black turnout and without the assistance of a national anti-Republican wave. There isn’t much polling on Pryor, who ran uncontested six years ago, but the fate of Blanche Lincoln—who was crushed by 21 points in 2010—seems like a relevant data point.

The GOP’s challenge is greater in Alaska and North Carolina. Democrats would be slightly favored in relatively neutral conditions, and the GOP just couldn’t realistically count on winning both. Incumbents are hard to take down, even in “wave” years like 2006 and 2008, when Democrats only barely beat Republican incumbents in blue or bluish states like Oregon, Minnesota, Virginia, New Hampshire, or even Rhode Island. In more neutral political conditions—like today, where Democrats have a slight edge on the generic congressional ballot—it would be pretty tough for the GOP to run the table. That’s why I didn’t think a GOP Senate was especially plausible without a crash in the president's approval ratings.

But now that Montana leans GOP, Republicans wouldn’t need both North Carolina and Alaska. And although the GOP isn’t favored in either race, it’s conceivable that they could win one of those seats if Republicans nominate a strong candidate. Democrats are still favorites to hold the Senate: the GOP is hardly assured of wins in Louisiana and Arkansas, let alone North Carolina or Alaska. But could the GOP sweep Louisiana and Arkansas and win one more state? It’s unlikely in today’s political conditions, but the states are red enough that it’s plausible. If Republicans had to win both North Carolina and Alaska, that would be getting pretty close to implausible. And that’s why Schweitzer’s decision not to run in Montana is a huge break for Republicans. A GOP Senate is starting to look plausible, even if it remains unlikely.