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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.
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."