Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus’s decision to retire in 2014 scrambles the Senate landscape, but if former Gov. Brian Schweitzer runs, Democrats could be in an even better position to retain the seat.
Baucus’s decision to not seek reelection at the end of his term, first reported by the Washington Post, was confirmed to msnbc by two senior Democratic officials. According to one source close to Schweitzer, the former governor is leaning toward running.
The Senate Finance Committee chairman’s decision comes as a shock, especially since Baucus was sitting on more than $5 million in his reelection account for what was expected to be a costly race. First elected in 1978, the moderate Democrat had never hewed closely to his party’s ideology, and had recently angered much of the Democratic base when he voted against the gun control background check bill. Baucus voted for the president’s health care law, but had recently expressed concerns over its implementation. He also recently voted against the Senate Democratic budget and in 2001 supported President George W. Bush’s tax cuts.
Baucus is the sixth Senate Democrat to announce his retirement this cycle, and the eighth overall senator. Now in his sixth term, Baucus would be 74 at the beginning of his seventh term.
Montana isn’t easy territory for Democrats, but it isn’t completely hostile turf either. While President Obama lost the state by more than 13 points in 2012. Democratic Sen. Jon Tester did win a close contest against then-Rep. Denny Rehberg. While Rehberg could be mentioned as a possible GOP candidate again, but since his defeat downplayed another bid.
If Democrats do turn to Schweitzer, he may even run stronger in the Treasure State than Baucus. According to one Democrat watching the race, “Schweitzer would actually be an upgrade.” Known for his folksy style and trademark bolo tie, the popular Schweitzer was term-limited out in 2012. He lost a 2000 Senate race to Republican Conrad Burns but parlayed that race into a successful run for governor in 2004. Tester defeated Burns in 2006.
In a February poll from Democratic-aligned Public Policy Polling, Schweitzer led Baucus in a potential primary match-up, and while Baucus trailed some of his potential GOP opponents, Schweitzer polled stronger. With all voters, 56% viewed Schweitzer favorably.
State Rep. Champ Edmunds and former state Senate Minority Leader Corey Stapleton had already announced campaigns. Other Republicans still mulling bids or mentioned as candidates would run stronger though, including former Gov. Marc Racicot, freshman Rep. Steve Daines and Attorney General Tim Fox.
According to the PPP survey, Schweitzer would trail Racicot by one point, but led Daines by three points, Fox by six points and led Stapleton and Edmunds by double digits.
Even with Schweitzer on the ballot, this will still be a marquee battle in 2014, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee heralded the Baucus vacancy in what is already a daunting map for Senate Democrats, with 20 Democratic seats up to just 13 for Republicans.
“Vulnerable Democrats will face voters just as ObamaCare’s tax hikes, mandates, fees, penalties, and red tape bureaucracy take shape over the next eight months, and Senator Baucus’ retirement reflects that political reality,” said NRSC Executive Director Rob Collins. “The 2014 electoral map is in free–fall for Democrats, who were already facing a daunting challenge.”
In a statement from Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), the Senate campaign leader pointed to Tester’s win in 2012 as reason for optimism
“Democrats have had a great deal of electoral success in Montana over the last decade, and I am confident that will continue,” Bennet said in a statement. “Democrats built an unprecedented ground game in Montana in 2012 when Senator Tester was reelected, and we will continue to invest all the resources necessary to hold this seat.”