Noem was a rising star in the Republican House and a Tea Party darling. Although she vacated a House leadership position after winning a second term in 2012, she was widely seen as having broad appeal in a potential Senate race in South Dakota. Tea Party groups were trying to recruit her to challenge Rounds, who is more of an establishment candidate (and backed by Karl Rove’s controversial group meant to protect moderate Republicans). This is exactly the kind of primary fight that has caused the GOP so much trouble in the last two election cycles. Candidates like Rounds were picked off by hard-right challengers in primary elections with low turnout. Everyone remembers Todd Akins and Richard Mourdock. But let’s not forget about Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, and Joe Miller. All five of those candidates beat incumbents or other candidates like Rounds in tough primary fights that harmed GOP chances for fall victories. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee tried to spin Noem’s decision as irrelevant, promising that Tea Party groups would still challenge Rounds, but it is unclear whether any credible opponent will come forward to derail the former governor’s chances.
The Tea Party is also failing to put together much of a challenge to Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. After promising to hold her accountable for too many moderate positions, conservative groups have yet to find anyone interested in challenging her for the nomination. With Sen. Jay Rockefeller retiring, West Virginia is viewed as prime pickup opportunity for Republicans, especially since Democrats seem unable to find an elite candidate of their own.
And that brings us to the second trend that should buoy Republican hopes for 2014. Schweitzer is just the latest prominent, red-state Democrat to opt against running for the Senate. In South Dakota, former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson (Sen. Tim Johnson’s son) both opted not to run. Johnson and Herseth Sandlin both probably saw the writing on the wall. South Dakota has trended more to the GOP in past elections, and Rounds (or even Noem) would have been very difficult to beat. But Schweitzer might have been the favorite in Montana. While Montana is very reliably red for Republican presidential candidates (Romney won it by 15 points in 2012), the local Democratic Party is on the rise, with Sen. Jon Tester winning reelection rather easily in 2012. Republicans have yet to find someone (although they hope popular freshman Rep. Steve Daines will ultimately decide to enter the race), but their chances for the win increased dramatically when Schweitzer decided he didn’t want to live in Washington.
When Democrats fared much better than expected in Senate races in 2010 and 2012, the key was their ability to recruit high-quality red-state Democrats (like Joe Donnelly in Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota) to challenge in open seats and the Republicans’ insistence on nominating Tea Party fringe candidates. So far, candidate recruitment is favoring the GOP, and the intraparty civil war that was on display in 2010 and 2012 is much more muted.
That isn’t to say that all the news has been good for Republicans. In fact, the toughest defense for either party might not be an open seat at all. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell missed a chance for an easy path to victory when ultraliberal actress Ashley Judd opted not to run against him. Instead he will face Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergran Grimes, who could beat him. It would be extremely bizarre if the GOP falls short in 2014 because of McConnell’s inability to hold Kentucky rather than intraparty fights caused by the Tea Party in open or vulnerable Democratic seats.