In the most rural states, which incumbent senators will run for re election and who will likely challengers be? Matt Barron sniffs out political clues from Montana to Maine.

Welcome to the 2013-2014 election cycle, a wonderful feature of the permanent campaign. As the ink has dried on the redistricting maps drawn after the 2010 federal Census, it is now clear from the results of November 6, that barring a tidal-wave election along the lines of the 1974 post-Watergate tsunami, Republicans should be locked into their majority control of the U.S. House for the balance of the decade. This built-in advantage means that the GOP only needs to win 28 of 99 swing districts/seats in any given election between 2014-2020 to remain in control of the House.

These conditions again bring the focus to the Senate races that will take place in the 2014 midterms. As political handicappers are already prognosticating their outlooks for the 20 Democrats and 13 Republicans up for re-election in two years, here’s my analysis, concentrating on the most rural states where these Senate contests will occur. States are ranked by % rural population as determined by the 2012 Almanac of American Politics from Census 2012 data (this ranking does not take into account small cities):

Maine – 59.3% residents rural (2nd most-rural state)

Sen. Susan Collins (R) heads into her election for a fourth term as the Pine Tree State’s senior senator with the retirement of her longtime colleague Olympia Snow. Collins is the only Republican up for re-election in 2014 from a blue state. A strong case can be made that she is the Senate’s last Republican moderate. I’ll define a GOP moderate as a member with an Americans for Democratic Action score of 30% or more; Collins pulled a 40% rating from ADA in 2010. Hailing from the potato-growing county of Aroostook in the far north, Collins has been very responsive to parochial interests such as fishing, blueberry farming and the forest and wood products sectors, though she was among a handful of senators to oppose the 2008 Farm Bill. She won her 2008 race by a comfortable 61%. But Collins, who got married at age 59 this year, may decide that life in the minority in a more polarized and hyper-partisan Senate is not where she wants to be anymore. If she runs again, she’s a lock for re-election.

West Virginia – 53.6% (3rd most-rural)
Here is a sobering fact for Mountaineer Democrats: Obama lost every county in West Virginia on November 6, the first time that has ever happened to a major party nominee. The state has gone more and more Republican since 2000 when George W. Bush hit Al Gore hard on the issues of coal and guns. At the top of the retirement worry list for Democrats is Sen. Jay Rockefeller who is 76 and has held his seat since 1984. Rockefeller has been a champion for rural health care and has used his chairmanship of the Commerce Committee to push for upgrading the nation’s rural broadband infrastructure. If Rockefeller steps down, look for Republicans to push hard for Rep. Shelley Moore Capito to win the seat.

Mississippi – 53.1% (4th most-rural)
Today, Democrats are in retreat across the Magnolia State. The party only has one statewide elected official — Attorney General Jim Hood. This is not exactly the bench with which to challenge Sen. Thad Cochran (R), who sits at the desk once used by Jefferson Davis. In the new Congress, Cochran may decide to use his seniority over fellow Republican Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts  to reclaim the ranking member slot on the Senate Agriculture Committee because Southern cotton, rice and sugar growers feel that Roberts sold them out on the issue of price supports as the Senate crafted and passed its version of the 2012 Farm Bill last June. Cochran is also a member of the Appropriations Committee, where he can direct morsels of pork to one of the nation’s poorest states. Color this seat bright red.

Arkansas – 47.7% (5th most-rural)
Much has changed since Sen. Mark Pryor (D) won his second term in 2008, crushing a little-known Green Party challenger with 80% of the vote. In 2010, Republicans captured two Democratic House seats while holding the open seat that John Boozman vacated as he defeated Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D). Lincoln, who had been chairman of the Agriculture Committee, lost by 21 percentage points. This year the GOP took over control of the state legislature and picked up the open House seat in AR-4 that had been held by Blue Dog Mike Ross. For much of the last two years, Pryor worked as Majority Leader Harry Reid’s point man on rural outreach for the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee before being replaced by Alaska’s Mark Begich. Expect Republicans to come after Pryor with either sophomore Congressman Tim Griffin or freshman Rep. Tom Cotton, who took Mike Ross’s seat.

South Dakota – 47.6% (6th most-rural)
When you look at a map of South Dakota and see those little islands of blue counties amid a sea of red, know that they are mostly Indian reservations. The Native American vote has been critical to the electoral fortunes of Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, who has not said if he will seek a fourth term in two years. In his 2002 race, Johnson beat Republican John Thune (now the state’s junior senator) by 524 votes thanks to the turnout on the Pine Ridge Reservation. In 2006, Johnson was sidelined for months after an almost-fatal brain hemorrhage, which has left some lingering health effects, although he rebounded in 2008 to win re-election with 62%. Former GOP Gov. Mike Rounds has already filed the paperwork for an exploratory committee, and Democrats now suffer from Thin Bench Syndrome in this state that once sent George McGovern and Tom Daschle to the Senate. If Johnson steps aside, Democrats may prevail on ex-Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin or Matt Varilek, a former Johnson staffer, to carry their banner in an open seat. Earlier this month, Varilek was handily defeated by Republican Rep. Kristi Noem for the state’s lone House seat; two years ago, Noem beat Herseth Sandlin.

– 46.4% (7th most-rural)
Big Sky country could see another competitive race if Sen. Max Baucus runs for his seventh term, as expected. Baucus, who chairs the powerful Finance Committee, has drawn the ire of progressives for his deep-sixing of the public option during the drafting of Obamacare; his advocacy of free trade deals doesn’t sit well with labor either. Baucus spent north of $11 million in 2008 to win 73% of the vote against a Republican nobody. That was before Citizens United. Money will not be a problem for Baucus given his support for Big Oil, health insurers and other lobbies seeking loopholes and adjustments to the tax code. Baucus is also a major player on the Agriculture Committee, where he authored a permanent disaster title in the 2008 Farm Bill to help his wheat growers and livestock producers cope with the ever-fickle weather of the northern plains. There is talk of a primary challenge by outgoing Gov. Brian Schweitzer, but Schweitzer is actually more often mentioned as a dark horse presidential candidate in 2016.

Alabama – 45.2% (8th most-rural)
Crimson Tide. I know, you’re thinking it’s the nickname of the 2011 national champions in college football from that campus down to Tuscaloosa. But it also describes the political geography that continues to splash across the Heart of Dixie.  AP recently reported that the GOP’s November 6 ‘Bama beat-down was so big that it swept away the last Democrat to hold statewide office and racked up wins in some rural counties that had long been Democratic bastions. The state’s Republican Party chair is now setting his sights on the Democratic sheriffs and other county courthouse offices for 2014. This is the environment that Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) will see as he sets his re-election effort on cruise control for a fourth term. Sessions has won with 52% (1996), 59% (2002) and 63% (2008) of the vote statewide, and Democrats will be hard pressed to recruit a credible challenger to take him on in two years.

Kentucky – 45% (9th most-rural)
“Kentucky woman, If she get to know you, she goin’ to own you.” Oh how Democrats in the Bluegrass State would love for those lyrics in that Neil Diamond classic to ring true in the person of actress Ashley Judd. Judd, (currently a Tennessee resident) spent much of her childhood in Kentucky and is a University of Kentucky grad (and avid Wildcats hoop fan). On November 9, she opened the door to a possible run at Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) telling the Louisville Courier-Journal, “I cherish Kentucky, heart and soul, and while I’m very honored by the consideration, we have just finished an election, so let’s focus on coming together to keep moving America’s families, and especially our kids, forward.” A Judd-McConnell race would be the marquee Senate battle of 2014. McConnell, who sits on both the Senate Ag Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Ag and Rural Development, won his 2008 race with only 53%, and recent polling had his disapproval rating at 42% back home. Still, even a well-funded celebrity like Judd (who has been talking with EMILY’s List), would have her hands full trying to oust McConnell, who would likely label her as a rich, educated, liberal, carpetbagging-elitist. Judd has called mountaintop-removal coal mining “the rape of Appalachia,” and being perceived as anti-coal is a dangerous position for any Kentucky pol. Just ask outgoing Rep. Ben Chandler (D). I’ve always wondered why voters in the coalfields elect Republicans who go to Washington and work at weakening mine safety and health rules and defunding black lung benefits. Another school of thought is that Judd should pass on McConnell and instead run against Sen. Rand Paul in 2016. As one of my Democratic contacts said of Paul “that man isn’t popular (because even hillbillies think he’s crazy, and he’s named after an atheist). He could be beaten.” Other Democrats getting mentioned for a challenge to McConnell are Gov. Steve Beshear who can’t run again in 2015, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, former mayor of Louisville Lt. Gov. Jerry Abrahamson, and Matthew Barzun, an Obama bundler.

New Hampshire – 42.5% (11th most-rural)
Over the last several cycles, politics in the Granite State have looked like a broken voltage meter with Democrats having big years in 2006 and 2008 and Republicans staging a sweeping comeback in 2010. The results of 2012 indicate more of a Blue Hampshire trend re-emerging, with Democratic women winning both House seats and the governorship. This trend bodes well for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D), who will be up for her second term. There is talk that ex-Sen. John Sununu (R) will seek a rematch with Shaheen who defeated him 52%-45% in 2008 after losing to him by five points in their first race, 2002.

North Carolina – 40.7% (12th most-rural)
Freshman Sen. Kay Hagan (D) is on every pundit’s list of most vulnerable senators. In 2008, when Hagan knocked off Elizabeth Dole, Democrats flipped the Tarheel State to Obama, won the governor’s office and nabbed the House seat in NC-8 (birthplace of Jesse Helms). However the Democrats’ reversal of fortune began swiftly in 2010 as Republicans captured both houses of the state legislature for the first time since the 1890s and claimed victory when Rep. Renee Ellmers knocked off six-term Democrat Bob Etheridge in the majority-rural district NC-2. The GOP’s radical re-map caused two moderate Democrats to head for the exits in NC-11 and NC-13 (both open seats resulted in GOP pickups), and Rep. Larry Kissell (D) was defeated in his re-drawn NC-8 seat. Highly unpopular Gov. Bev Purdue (D) did not run for re-election, opening the door to the man she had bested in 2008; November 6, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory won the keys to the Executive Mansion in Raleigh. Hagan is a centrist but her job approval is dragging;  a November 2012 survey by NC-based Public Policy Polling found 37% disapproval and only  35% who said Hagan is doing a good job. Republicans seem to be looking at House Speaker Thom Tillis, a former IBM executive from Mecklenburg County (site of the 2012 Democratic national convention) or Congresswoman Ellmers as their favorites to make Hagan a one-term wonder.

Matt L. Barron is a political consultant and rural strategist based in Chesterfield, MA (pop. 1,222). Follow him on Twitter: @MrRural

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