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Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus is preparing to run for a seventh term in 2014, with allies of the powerful Montana Democrat disputing suggestions he might be vulnerable.
This cycle, political observers in Montana and Washington, D.C., are focused on Democratic Sen. Jon Tester's bid to survive an expected bloody challenge from Rep. Denny Rehberg (R). But some Big Sky Country political operatives say 2014 could be equally dramatic. Gov. Brian Schweitzer — term-limited and leaving office next year — has declined to rule out challenging Baucus in the Democratic primary. The Senator's low approval ratings could motivate formidable Republicans to also enter the race.
"Max plans to run, and he plans to win," Baucus spokeswoman Kate Downen said Wednesday. "But that's over three years and another Senate race away. So between now and then, Max will remain laser-focused on working hard and doing what's right for Montana, just like always."
Democratic operatives based in Montana cautioned not to overplay the prospects of Schweitzer launching a primary challenge against Baucus. They argued that political gossip in Montana tends to proliferate — more so than in other states — and that Baucus would have the advantage in any event because of 30 years of party building and the loyalty that he has engendered among committed Democrats.
Montana Democrats concede the ambitious Schweitzer has not moved to knock down any rumors and that the national spotlight available to a Washington politician might appeal to a former governor looking for his next act. That Baucus and Schweitzer have a frosty relationship and vastly different styles has only fueled speculation that party comity would not stop the governor from running for Senate if it interests him.
Still, many doubt Schweitzer's desire to make the race, noting he has floated his name for several positions, including Montana's lone House seat or a Cabinet or ambassador post in President Barack Obama's administration. Tester, who is closely aligned with Baucus and credits his colleague with providing invaluable support to Montana's Democratic Party, said he would be surprised if the governor is interested in running for Senate.
"I don't know anybody out there that would primary [Baucus]," Tester said during a brief interview. "Everybody bounces around Schweitzer. But I've talked to Brian extensively. I don't think Brian wants to come back here."
Schweitzer's office could not be reached Wednesday for comment.
Baucus won re-election in 2008 with 73 percent of the vote against nominal Republican opposition. The Senator won his 2002 race with 63 percent of the vote in what was a successful cycle for the GOP that saw the party retake control of the Senate. In fact, in a state with a primarily conservative electorate, Baucus never garnered less than 55 percent of the vote going back to his 1974 House contest, other than winning 50 percent to 45 percent over Rehberg in 1996.