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Before the verdict was announced in the George Zimmerman case, the big news on Saturday was the decision made by former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer to not run for the Senate seat that is up for grabs following the retirement of Max Baucus.

Schweitzer was long-thought to be preparing for a run so the news of his sudden decline, really throws this race into toss-up/lean red territory.  The Democrats are trying to hold seats from their very successful 2008 campaign in which they elected Democrats in red states such as Alaska and North Carolina as well as seats they retained in Louisiana and Arkansas.  With the retirement of Tim Johnson and the refusal to run by former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, South Dakota is essentially lost as is West Virginia following the retirement of Jay Rockefeller.

The last thing the Democrats wanted was another wide-open seat and Schweitzer’s refusal to run, for whatever reason, has to be causing Democrats nationally to sweat a little harder now that 2014 gets closer with each month that passes by.

Still, however, if you want to remain an optimist Montana is a bit more purple than South Dakota and West Virginia (and for that matter Louisiana and Arkansas).  Montana has a Democratic Governor and two of its Senators rep Team Blue as well.  This isn’t a state that’s unafraid to vote blue on a state level still and the Democrats do have some semblance of a bench here, unlike South Dakota.

The number one candidate, in my eyes, seems to be State Superintendent of Public Education Denise Juneau.  Juneau has won two statewide elections, albeit very narrowly in 2012, so she has some electoral experience.  But she is someone that could easily earn the support of teachers and educators across the state and her profile was enhanced a tad in 2012 when she spoke at the Democratic National Convention.  It is worth noting that Juneau shared the stage on the same night as Lilly Ledbetter, Planned Parenthood head Cecile Richards, Tammy Duckworth and Barbara Mikulski (the longest serving female Senator in U.S. history) so the Democrats are aware of her potential for a promotion.

Juneau was also the first Native American to win a statewide contest in Montana and does appear to be someone who has a very attractive profile as a candidate.  In terms of fundraising, Superintendent of Public Education isn’t a marquee race necessarily but she outraised her Republican opponent by about $50,000.  Given Montana’s lack of a major media market, fundraising isn’t the most important thing on the docket.

Still you have to assume that Juneau is the number one recruit now that Schweitzer is out.

But if Juneau declines (or accepts for that matter), she could have a credible challenger in Monica Lindeen who is the Auditor of Montana and is well-connected to Montana politics given how she was at one point, Vice Chair of the Democratic Party of Montana.  Lindeen has won two elections as Auditor by fairly safe margins and seems to have solid electoral chops as she served in the Montana House of Representatives as well, though was unsuccessful in a run for Congress in 2006 against then-Rep. Denny Rehberg.  So, that being said, she has at least tried to get a promotion to D.C. at one point.

Lindeen is also term-limited and can’t run again in 2016.  One of the downswings to Lindeen though was her settlement of a lawsuit started by a fired employee that had to deal with the accusation that Schweitzer’s brother, Walt, “illegally solicited political donations from fellow employees in a state building”.  I can only imagine that in a hotly contested race, you’ll hear plenty more about that.  Still Lindeen is also a credible candidate.

The last name being bandied around is EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock who was had had plenty of national press over the past few years.  EMILY’s List, for those unaware or vaguely familiar with it, is an organization that promotes Democratic women to run for electoral office so it would be kind of coincidental if their President runs against another woman for office.

Schriock though is very well-connected and with her ties to EMILY’s List and some national figures, she would have no trouble raising millions in Montana.  Like I stated earlier, Montana isn’t quite California but this race will become very competitive as the midterms near so the more money you have in your pocket; the better.  Schriock is a native Montanan and was Jon Tester’s Chief of Staff before heading Al Franken’s 2008 Senate campaign.

However, Schriock is unabashedly liberal which would be great if she was running in Minnesota or Wisconsin even but in Montana that would be considered a liability.  We could use great progressives in every state but sometimes the state just isn’t ready for it.

Nonetheless, the Democrats lost their biggest fish and with that the edge of the race but with still 17 months remaining until the midterm elections; there is plenty of time for one of these candidates to rise to the top.  For now, Montana is still a bit red so Republicans will have the edge here though we’ll see if their top candidates in former Gov. Marc Racicot or Rep. Steve Daines (he who would’ve served one term by the time the election rolls around) decides to make a run.

It’ll be a battle though, that’s for sure.