Ed Gillespie's decision to run against Sen. Mark Warner in Virginia this fall is the latest piece of evidence that Republicans have learned well from the recruitment strategy of Senate Democrats in 2012.
Gillespie is not a favorite in the race. He probably has less than a 30 percent chance of winning. But, he is a serious candidate who will raise money and run a real campaign against Warner, and, if the national environment collapses for Democrats or the incumbent makes a major mistake, will be positioned to win in a swing state.
In short, Virginia is now a race in play -- an expansion of the playing field on which the fight for the Senate majority will take place. Republicans are up to something similar in New Hampshire where former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown certainly seems to be moving in the direction of challenging Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) this fall. Say what you will about Brown -- carpetbagger, lost his last race etc. -- but with him the race is on the map and without him it, well, isn't. Republicans have set a similar course in Michigan where former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land continues to post very impressive numbers in the Democratic-leaning open seat being vacated by Sen. Carl Levin (D).
The GOP's 2014 strategy might ring a bell. That's because it's the exact strategy that Democrats put in place in 2012 to hold the Senate.
Facing daunting raw numbers -- 21 Democratic seats were up as compared to just nine Republican ones -- as well as a slew of Democratic retirements in difficult states (Wisconsin, Virginia and North Dakota), Senate Democrats did everything they could to widen the playing field. Take Indiana and North Dakota.
In Indiana, then Rep. Joe Donnelly (D) decided to run for the Senate under the belief that if Sen. Dick Lugar lost in the Republican primary the race might be winnable. Lugar lost and Donnelly won -- despite the fact that President Obama only took 44 percent of the vote in the state. In North Dakota, former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D) decided to run despite the Republican lean of the state. She ran a great campaign, her heavily touted Republican opponent did not and she now sits in the Senate.
What Republicans then are trying to do is to give themselves the sort of margin for error in 2014 that Democrats didn't allow them in 2012. Let's do the math.
Republicans need to win six seats to re-take the majority. In West Virginia, South Dakota and Arkansas, Republicans recruited their strongest candidate into the race and are, at worst, even odds to take those Democrats seats. That gets Republicans halfway to their goal.
The key to the Republican strategy is making that next tier of seats (and recruits) as big as possible since a few of the candidates will flame out, some of the incumbents will prove tougher to beat than they appear now and the national political environment could well shift several times between now and November. By our count, Republicans now have seven Democratic seats in this second tier: Alaska, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Virginia.(Some Republicans would throw Minnesota into that mix due to self funder Mike McFadden's candidacy but we remain skeptical.) In some of those seven states, Republicans have a solid candidate in a tough primary (Alaska with Dan Sullivan, Louisiana with Bill Cassidy). In others they have an unproven field (North Carolina, Montana, Michigan). In still others, it remains to be seen whether the Democratic incumbent is genuinely vulnerable (New Hampshire, Virginia).
But, in all cases, there is a credible Republican in the race who can raise the money needed to compete against the incumbent and has a real chance at being the party's nominee. That means that Republicans need only to win three of these seven second-tier races -- assuming they win Arkansas, South Dakota and West Virginia and don't lose their own seats in Kentucky and Georgia -- to re-take the majority.
At the moment, Senate Republicans have two major holes in their "expand the map" strategy: Colorado and Iowa. Colorado has moved toward Democrats in the last two presidential elections buts remains a place where Republicans need to be able to compete. At the moment, the Republican field is led by Ken Buck who lost a very winnable race for Senate in 2010. In Iowa, the retirement of Sen. Tom Harkin (D) should have made for a sterling pickup opportunity for Republicans but their field -- at least at the moment -- is a mish-mash of sort-of-knowns and unknowns, none of which have broken from the pack as of yet.
Keep an eye on those two states over the next few months. (The filing deadline in Iowa is March 14; in Colorado it's April 15.) Adding one of those two -- or maybe even Minnesota making it into that second tier -- would further expand Republicans' paths to a majority.
One thing's for sure: If they make it over the top this November, Senate Republicans should send their Democratic counterparts a nice thank you gift for showing them the way.