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For Ambitious Montana Politicians, the Time Is Now

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
There hasn’t been an open Senate seat alongside an open House seat in Montana since Baucus ascended in 1978.

This cycle presents incredible opportunities for Big Sky Country pols with congressional aspirations.

An open race for Senate and a likely open race for the at-large House seat mean there’s no time like the present to try to come to Congress from Montana.

This kind of political opportunity hasn’t occurred in the state for almost four decades — since Democratic Sen. Max Baucus ascended from the House in 1978. Baucus will retire in 2014, and as a result, as many as a dozen candidates will attempt to clamber to Congress this year in the state.

Republicans expect freshman Rep. Steve Daines to announce his bid for Senate any day now and say his candidacy would clear the field. A long list of Republicans and some Democrats are seeking his seat.

Montana political insiders said the state leans right, but they also caution there’s a huge base of independent voters. Democrats argue that both the Senate and House race will be competitive.

“Montana is at a real crossroads politically,” said John Lewis, a former top aide to Baucus and a Democratic candidate for the at-large House seat. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty.”

Assuming Daines runs for Senate, next November he’ll face either Lt. Gov. John Walsh or Dirk Adams, a former banker and current cattle rancher. Both Democrats have already declared their candidacies.

Adams “came out of nowhere,” a Democratic source quipped.

Democratic insiders say party brass is pumping Walsh, a former member of the Montana National Guard. He served as the state’s adjutant general before being elected lieutenant governor in 2012.

Party operatives recruited Walsh after their top choice, popular former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, unexpectedly declined to run for Senate.

Much of the state’s Democratic bench includes other pols who declined to run for the Senate seat: state Auditor Monica Lindeen, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, former Rep. Pat Williams, and Denise Juneau, the state superintendent of public instruction.

For years, Democrats often mentioned former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger as a top candidate. But a local consultant noted the 77-year-old’s name is heard increasingly less often.

For the likely open House seat, Democrats have coalesced behind former Baucus aide Lewis. A Democratic source said up-and-coming state Rep. Amanda Curtis had considered a run as well but decided against it.

By comparison, the GOP field for the House seat is large and unwieldy.

Some potential contenders include state Rep. Champ Edmunds, former Secretary of State Brad Johnson, former state Sen. Corey Stapleton, state Sen. Matt Rosendale, former state Sen. Ryan Zinke and state Rep. Elsie Arntzen.

“I think they’re all great Republicans, and we’ve worked with them before,” state party Executive Director Bowen Greenwood said of the field.

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