By NEIL KING JR.
Republican prospects for taking the Senate in 2014 brightened Thursday with Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin’s announcement that he won’t run for re-election. But the man in charge of the GOP’s Senate campaign arm says the party has work to do to capitalize on this and other opportunities, mainly by identifying and supporting candidates it sees as electable.
“The last election taught us that candidates matter,” said Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, in outlining his strategy for an election year that aligns well for the GOP effort to take the Senate.
“We can’t simply take a hands-off approach and say it doesn’t matter to us,” he said in an interview.
The move to be more active in helping to pick candidates it considers electable could stir dissent among conservative and tea-party groups in several states.
Republicans last year were widely thought to be within striking distance of retaking the Senate, but a series of weak candidates and campaign stumbles in the final weeks allowed the Democrats to widen their majority with upset wins in four heavily Republican states.
The map looks even more auspicious for the GOP next year. Democrats must defend 21 of the 35 seats up for grabs, and seven of those races are in states Mitt Romney won last year. Moreover, Democrats won’t be able to count on the surge of support for President Barack Obama that helped many of the incumbents win their seats in 2008.
Mr. Levin’s decision to retire makes his seat a more appealing target for Republicans. The senator, who is 78 years old and in his sixth term, said in a statement he decided to spend his last two years in office focused on issues before the Senate, instead of campaigning.
He is the fourth Senate Democrat to opt out of a re-election bid next year. Two Republicans have also decided to retire after next year. The GOP needs to pick up six seats to take the Senate.
Barely two months into his job, Mr. Moran was diplomatic in saying the campaign committee likely wouldn’t endorse primary candidates outright. But he said the group was already working alongside governors, chambers of commerce and legislators in various states “to find candidates that are electable.”
Unlike in 2010, when the GOP ran a nationally focused campaign attacking the Obama administration’s stimulus spending and national health-care overhaul, Mr. Moran said the party intends to tailor next year’s campaigns to appeal to local interests and local sensitivities. “Each state needs to have a state campaign that is independent of any national campaign,” he said.
The committee is already facing challenging environments in Iowa and Georgia, two open-seat races that could generate heated primary fights between conservative and more-centrist Republican candidates.
In Iowa, many Republicans worry the party could squander a potential pickup if one of the state’s most conservative lawmakers, Rep. Steve King, is their Senate nominee next year.
In both states, Mr. Moran said he and his staff have been in discussions with local party leaders to try to iron out differences and rally around whatever candidate is seen as most likely to prevail in the general election.
A number of state and national conservative groups have reacted angrily recently to calls within the party to throw money and establishment support behind candidates that party leaders see as the most electable.
The super PAC American Crossroads stirred a furor earlier this year when it announced plans to launch a new political group, the Conservative Victory Fund, that promises spend millions next year to identify and support Republican primary candidates it sees as electable.
Conservative groups such as the Club for Growth reject that approach, saying many of the party’s newest lights—such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee—first had to defeat establishment-backed candidates before winning in the general election.
Though the 2014 map tilts in favor of the GOP, Senate Democrats note that many incumbents up for re-election have deep ties to the states they represent, such as Sens. Max Baucus in Montana, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Mark Pryor in Arkansas.
“We fully acknowledge that it’s a difficult map,” said Matt Canter, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “But the math favors us, and so far our field of candidates dramatically favors us.”
A version of this article appeared on page The Wall Street Journal.