If the Republican Party can stop fumbling opportunities, it might win the Senate in 2014. The latest blow to Democrats was the decision by the popular former governor of  Montana, Brian Schweitzer, not to run for the Senate seat that Max Baucus will be vacating. The National Republican Senate Committee was understandably gleeful. (“Just two days ago, Senate Democrats were quoted promising Brian Schweitzer  tremendous resources to get in the race.”)

Senator Mitch McConnell-Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg Sen. Mitch McConnell-Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Now this is not a slam-dunk. Just as North Dakota turned out to be a disappointment, Republicans who think they can merely run a not-Democrat campaign may be in for a rude awakening.

That said, there are now a batch of red states where there is no incumbent (Montana, West Virginia, South Dakota) or a weak Democratic incumbent (Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Alaska). Republicans will need to win six of these (assuming New Jersey flips back to the Democratic column), but this is not an impossibility.

Republicans can maximize their chances of taking the Senate by doing five things:

1. Avoid untested, un-vetted or unreliable candidates, especially those compelled to opine on God, abortion or rape (or even worse, all three). In red states it is perfectly acceptable to be a pro-life candidate. What is not acceptable is to make abortion and gay marriage the top priorities when voters are interested in the economy, jobs, the debt, etc.

2. Come up with an alternative to Obamacare. The GOP understandably is excited about running against the president’s unpopular and partially delayed health-care plan, but Democrats will have an escape hatch if Republicans offer nothing else. That will leave them open to the charge that they want to throw people with preexisting conditions to the wolves or cut Medicare (watch that old saw come back).

3. Fail to explain why a GOP Senate is so critical. Republicans should run against a do-nothing Senate that rolls over for the White House in scandal investigations but can’t work with the House. Voters should want a GOP Senate because it’s time to get to the bottom of the IRS scandal or it’s time for agreement on a budget or it’s time to develop domestic energy and stop the war on coal.

4. If a GOP candidate opposes the Gang of 8 immigration reform plan, he needs to explain how he’d improve it. If he voted for it, he needs to explain that the real work will be done after the House acts, so if voters want to finally get border security, they should push for a GOP Senate that can reach agreement with the House.

5. Do not forget national security. Voters have a sense that things are spinning out of control. They may feel the impact of Defense Department sequestration cuts. They understand Iran is getting closer to obtaining nuclear weapons capability. Senators do matter in foreign policy — be it on treaties, confirmation fights, defense spending and oversight. The president is taking us down a road of international decline and abject weakness. The Senate can help shore up our military and slow the worst tendencies of this administration.