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Retirements Highlight GOP's Primary Challenges

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Harkin is among a number of senators who have already announced they won’t be running again in 2014.

“There’s no doubt that the retirements of at least two Democrats in key states represent good news and add to growing momentum for Senate Republicans,” NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh said. “But it’s a long cycle ahead, and so our side will stay focused, do the hard work and take nothing for granted.”

The retirements of Harkin, who represents a swing state Obama won, and Rockefeller provide instant GOP pickup opportunities. For Republicans, the more Democratic open seats the better, but their own open seat in Georgia is more complicated, as Chambliss was the GOP incumbent most vulnerable to a primary challenge.

A drawn-out primary for an incumbent who ultimately loses can suck the oxygen out of fundraising and drain the overall momentum for the general. The GOP likely would have been better off last year had Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar not toiled through the primary before losing in May to state Treasurer Richard E. Mourdock. Had he retired, it might have spurred a better candidate to jump in.

Still, Georgia provides Democrats with perhaps their best pickup opportunity. The fact that a state that hasn’t voted Democrat for president since 1992 sits atop the party’s target list speaks volumes about how the cycle is stacked up against Democrats. But that possibility is in no small part because of the crush of Republicans expected to seriously consider running and the ugly intraparty contest that could ensue.

The stable of potential candidates in Georgia is filled with essentially the state’s entire roster of Republican congressmen. Reps. Tom Price and Lynn Westmoreland top that list, but it also includes Reps. Jack Kingston, Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey and Tom Graves, along with a few state officials. Democrats have a couple of attractive potential candidates in Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a rising star in the party, and Blue Dog Rep. John Barrow.

Harkin’s departure in Iowa makes that seat more vulnerable for Democrats, given the loss of a trusted name brand and the sizable coffers Harkin wielded. But it’s unlikely that Republicans will be able to avoid an ideologically driven primary, especially if Rep. Steve King runs. That’s a concern for GOP strategists.

Rockefeller’s absence plus the candidacy of Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito equals a seat in even greater jeopardy. But how perilous a situation Democrats find themselves in West Virginia or Iowa will depend on the results of those GOP primaries, which already appear ripe for competition.

Other possible GOP primary hot spots include: Alaska, where Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and 2010 Republican Senate nominee Joe Miller, a tea party favorite, are considering a challenge to Begich; South Dakota, where former Gov. Michael Rounds may find company in the GOP primary for a chance at Johnson’s seat; and Louisiana, where an unpredictable jungle primary process could complicate the GOP’s efforts against Landrieu.

In the 2010 and 2012 cycles, Republican primaries produced candidates who ultimately wasted winnable opportunities with an inability to attract support among the general electorate. That includes high-profile misfires such as 2010 nominee Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and conservative Missouri Rep. Todd Akin, who last year lost a top target for the party after controversial remarks about “legitimate rape.”

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