Democrats Aren't Throwing in the Towel in Montana Senate Race

With Schweitzer out, a crop of fresh Dems are exploring a potential run for Senate.

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Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who was considered a top candidate for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat, announced earlier this month that he would not run.

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When Montana's star Democrat, former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, passed on the state's upcoming race for U.S. Senate, many believe the revelations about his dark money past had all but handed the Republicans the seat.

[READ: Decision in Montana Boosts GOP Chances in Senate]

In a memo, Rob Collins, the executive director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, acknowledged Monday that Schweitzer's decision made Montana the "third state where Democrats have not only failed to land their top candidates, but to recruit a candidate capable of winning a general election matchup."

Pundits argue that with midterm elections tending to tilt in the minority party's favor and the fact that it has been 35 years since Democrats and Republicans have competed for an open Senate seat in Montana, the GOP could have the edge. The historical trend of the "six-year itch" has long held that the party in the White House loses big in the Congress.

While voters in the Big Sky state have a populist twinge and are willing to turn a blind eye to party affiliation if the right candidate comes along (they elected a Democratic governor and senator in the 2012 election), most still identify the state as deeply Republican.

In 45 years, only one Democrat, Bill Clinton, has managed to win the state in a presidential election. In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney beat President Barack Obama by nine points.

[ALSO: Veteran Montana Democrat Baucus to Retire]

"One of the big problems for the Democrats is that if you have an open seat, people are more likely to vote their party inclinations, absent of information or widespread name recognition," says David Parker, a political science professor at Montana State University who has also written a book about the 2012 senate race in Montana.

While he has yet to declare his candidacy, pundits agree that Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., will win the seat. Daines, a freshman, has a 35 percent approval rating in Montana but that comes with a lot of room to grow. While 31 percent disapproved of his job performance, 35 percent didn't know him or have an opinion on the new legislator.

"Voters still see him as fresh and malleable. He doesn't have universal name recognition, but he ran a good, safe and clean campaign," Parker says. "People have a positive, even if it is vague, image of him."

The bench looks much thinner without Schweitzer in the race, but Democrats say they are still optimistic about finding a moderate whose message can resonate among an independent electorate.

"We are in a spot where we know how to pick good candidates," one Montana-based Democratic strategist says. "I don't think it is too late. There is a really good opportunity for someone to emerge."

[MORE: Will Emily's List Director Become a Political Candidate Herself in Montana?]

Democrats are hoping to follow a model like Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who didn't enter the race until December 2011 and managed a narrow victory in 2012.

Names circulating for the Democratic ticket in Montana are Denise Juneau, the state superintendent of public instruction and the first Native American woman to be elected to statewide office. Stephanie Schriock, a Butte, Mont., native and the executive director of pro-choice Democratic women's group, Emily's List, is also rumored to be considering a run.

"There are folks out there who are here or tied to Montana who could be our party's candidate," the Montana-based Democratic strategist says. "Who that person is will be the fun part. But whoever he or she stands a strong chance of defeating Steve Daines."

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Corrected 07/23/13: The photo caption on this article originally misidentified when former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer announced he would not run for the state’s U.S. Senate seat in 2014. Schweitzer announced his intentions on July 13.