President Obama’s nomination of Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) as U.S. ambassador to China is the latest shake-up in the tumultuous battle for the Senate majority.
Democrats believe the nomination will increase their chances of winning seats in Montana and, potentially, in Louisiana, where vulnerable Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) is in line to pick up the Energy Committee gavel thanks to Baucus’s exit.
But Republicans say their chances of recapturing the majority are rising due to President Obama’s sagging poll numbers.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats to win the Senate majority in 2014 and are counting on victories against Democratic incumbents in states like Arkansas, North Carolina and Louisiana to get them there.
The GOP had also hoped for a pickup in Montana, where Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) is the favorite over Lt. Gov. John Walsh (D).
But now that Baucus is headed to China, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) seems likely to nominate Walsh to the open Senate seat, potentially giving his campaign the boost of incumbency.
A Senate appointment could help Walsh boost his fundraising and national profile in the same way that Sen. Dean Heller’s (R-Nev.) 2011 appointment to the Senate helped his campaign. It could also undercut the primary threat from former Montana Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger (D).
“This is good news for him, if they appoint Walsh, and I can't see any reason they wouldn't,” says Cook Political Report Senate race editor Jennifer Duffy. “It's obviously a big boost to the money.”
Bullock has refused to speculate on whom he’s considering for the seat, but many expect him to pick Walsh, his 2012 running mate and a former brigadier general in the Montana National Guard.
“Today is about Max, his commitment to public service and the state of Montana,” Bullock spokesman Kevin O’Brien said in a Friday afternoon email to The Hill. “It appears there will be a vacancy in the U.S. Senate and the Governor will ensure that Montana is well represented.“
Republicans blasted Baucus’s appointment as nakedly political, accusing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) of spearheading a “Big Sky buyoff.”
“Harry Reid is the Brigadier General of the back room deal,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring wrote after news broke of Baucus’s nomination.
“Wait until just before Christmas, then cut a back room deal to hand a retiring United States senator an ambassadorship so that the governor can magically hand a Senate seat to old Harry's preferred candidate.”
Democrats fired back, predicting their nominee would triumph over Daines.
“Regardless of how the process unfolds, there will be a crystal-clear contrast between Steve Daines, a Tea Party House Republican who's part of the problem in Washington, who spent his career using the same type of Washington tricks the country despises, and a Montana hero like John Walsh,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Canter.
Baucus’s appointment might also boost the reelection hopes of Landrieu, a senator who has kept an independent streak as a vocal advocate for the oil and gas industry.
Landrieu has already been talking on the campaign trail about her work on the Energy & Natural Resources Committee, and might soon be able to drive that panel’s agenda by wielding the gavel. That could help distance her from the national Democratic Party, which is unpopular in her home state.
Georgia is another bright spot for Democrats. Former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) became the latest Republican in the crowded primary field to stir up controversy this week by suggesting low-income school children should have to “sweep the floor of the cafeteria” in exchange for free lunches.
Reps. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) and Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) have made similar missteps, and Democrats are hopeful that the internecine primary fight will yield a weak GOP nominee.
Democrats have a strong candidate in former charity head Michelle Nunn (D) and argue she has a real shot at winning the open seat in the conservative-leaning state.
Republicans are feeling bullish about other races, however.
Former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) is looking more and more like a likely candidate in New Hampshire — he recently moved to the state and has been headlining a number of events there in recent weeks.
Shaheen remains fairly popular in the swing state, and it’s far from certain that Brown runs. If he does, he’ll have to navigate a GOP primary and deal with carpet-bagging charges.
But Democrats admit Brown would give Shaheen a much tougher race than any of the other Republicans who are running.
In Michigan, polls have consistently found close a close race between Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land (R); President Obama’s low approval ratings in the state might help the GOP.
Though most observers believe Peters has the edge, the polling has been close enough that Duffy decided to move the race into Cook’s toss-up category.
Virginia is another potential bright spot for the GOP. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) is popular in the state, but former Republican National Committee head Ed Gillespie recently said he’s considering a run against him.
Though Warner would be hard to beat under any circumstances, Gillespie is a well-connected and savvy operative who could raise huge sums of money.