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But Baucus' image took a hit during the past two years, with his job approval rating dropping to almost 40 percent before rebounding recently to the high 40s. Those numbers would be decent for many politicians in the midst of a down economy but are historically low for Montana's senior Senator. Baucus has suffered from his close association with Obama's health care law, a negative reaction generally to the administration's agenda and the ailing economy.
This political climate is why Republicans are optimistic about beating Tester and why the GOP believes 2014 might provide the party with a real opportunity to oust Baucus. Some Montana political operatives speculate Rehberg might even consider a rematch with Baucus in 2014 if he falls short against Tester next year, similar to Sen. John Thune's (R-S.D.) decision to challenge then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) in 2004 after losing narrowly to Sen. Tim Johnson (D) in 2002.
A prolific fundraiser, Baucus reported $2 million in cash on hand in April, putting him on track to build the war chest he would need to run a competitive re-election race in 2014.
In 2006, about $20 million combined was spent on the Montana Senate race, with Tester raising around $5.6 million — much of it with Baucus' help. Democrats point to Baucus' fundraising and time spent on the ground in Montana as evidence that he will be just as difficult to unseat in 2014 as in past years. Republicans disagree, contending even Baucus should not be considered a lock to defeat Schweitzer in a hypothetical primary matchup.
"I've never seen his numbers this low, and it's about more than just health care," a Republican operative based in Montana said. "A Baucus-Schweitzer primary would be interesting."
The early conjecturing over the 2014 Senate, still more than two years away, offers a window into Montana politics and a state Democratic Party at the apex of success. Despite the state's GOP lean, Democrats control both Senate seats, the governor's office and the five additional statewide constitutional offices — the Republicans run the Legislature. And at the top of the party are Baucus and Schweitzer, two very different politicians.
Baucus is a policy wonk and a legislator with a reserved personality. Schweitzer is flamboyant and was described by one Montana Democrat this way: "Whether he's a born leader, he's a born executive." As the governor, Schweitzer is officially Montana's top Democrat. But he's had to compete for that space — and influence in party circles — with Baucus, who has been around a lot longer.
That intraparty competition might be why a second Democratic operative predicted Schweitzer was content to let speculation of his interest of a 2014 primary challenge linger. "He hasn't done anything to quash this rumor. He won't shut the door to a run against Baucus, if I had to guess."