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HELENA — As the first day of candidate filing kicked off in Montana Jan. 12, Democrats made a bold boast: They might win a majority, or two, at the 2013 Montana Legislature.

This feat, of course, would mean pulling off an incredible batch of Election Day victories in the 2012 legislative races and no losses, sort of like running the proverbial table not once, but two or three times in a row.

Republicans hold a commanding 68-32 majority in the Montana House and a 28-22 edge in the state Senate.

It's possible, I suppose, for Democrats to make significant gains against the GOP this election. But I don't think I'm risking much to say that continued Republican control of the Legislature after the 2012 election is darn good bet.

We'll talk about specific races and numbers in a bit, but first, a word or two about what it takes to manage the electoral sea change that Montana Democrats are talking about.

You need good candidates, excellent campaigns (including a good get-out-the-vote effort, which takes money), a winnable message and a discredited opponent — all at the same time.

Whether any of these materialize for the Democrats remains to be seen, but the last one, which is key, is debatable.

Democrats also would need to win some rural areas besides Indian reservations, which they have shown themselves almost incapable of doing in recent years.

House Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, who's running for a Senate seat in Butte, said Monday that Democrats believe they can win by presenting themselves as the party that will work on developing natural resources and help rural areas and elsewhere with infrastructure, such as support for schools and health care.

But he also acknowledged that Democrats have a steep hill to climb.

A closer look at the actual makeup and competitive races of the Senate and House confirm how difficult it will be for Democrats to engineer a victory.

In the Senate, Republicans pretty much have 25 spots nailed down, including 16 districts where Republican incumbents are in mid-term and nine up for election but in solidly Republican districts. That means Democrats must win three potentially competitive seats now held by Republicans to forge a tie: Senate districts 2 in the north Flathead Valley, 17 in the Havre area, and 18 in northeast Montana.

Winning one of these seats would be an accomplishment; winning all three would be a political grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Democrats also must defend four Senate seats of their own that are hardly slam-dunks: Three in Billings and one in southern Cascade County.

The long and short: Republicans should feel pretty good about the Senate.

In the House, I'd say as many as 20 Republican seats are in play, where Democrats have anywhere from a good to remotely possible chance of winning, if the political stars align their way. They also appear to have none of their own seats at risk, having likely hit rock bottom on their numbers.

But winning back 20 House seats? Democrats must defeat 15 Republican incumbents and take five open seats, in areas as diverse and far-flung as the Flathead Valley, Ronan, Browning, Great Falls, Helena, Havre, suburban Bozeman and Missoula, Glendive and Billings. It's one tall order.

About the only positive for Democrats here is that 12 of those GOP incumbents are relatively inexperienced freshmen who won in 2010's unusual Republican tidal wave, including some in Democratic strongholds. It's also not certain all of those freshmen will file for re-election, possibly creating additional open seats, which are always easier for the "out" party to win.

Democrats' campaign so far is one mostly of attempting to paint Republicans as extreme, saying the GOP pursued radical social and ideological policies in 2011 and ignored common-sense jobs bills and financing of government services.

Sesso said he knows Democrats must do more than run down the GOP, and need a positive agenda: "We can't make a living tearing down others. We have to put our best foot forward."

Republicans, however, seem confident, and unfazed by criticism that their promise of streamlining government to create jobs has somehow been discredited.

"I think Republicans had a very, very pro-jobs legislative agenda and the (Democrats) kind of fought us all along the way," Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge, said last week.

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