Sen. Max Baucus’ surprising retirement announcement puts the onus on Democrats to recruit the state's popular former governor, who could be the only candidate capable of holding the seat.
Thanks to a head’s up from the Senate Finance Committee chairman, party operatives have already begun with former Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
The bolo tie-wearing national party figure could tap into a fundraising network far beyond any other Democrat in the state — except, of course, for Baucus. There is little doubt that the two-term former governor would give Democrats a good chance at holding the seat.
The question is whether the unpredictable and ambitious Schweitzer will actually run.
Without Schweitzer, the remaining field is a big unknown. The crop of Democrats running for Montana's open House seat last year was not viewed as particularly strong. But Democratic sources in the state said EMILY's List President Stephanie Schriock, a former top aide to Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, would likely be interested in running.
With Schweitzer in the fold, however, Democrats would remain more confident about Montana than some of the party's other vulnerable seats, whether other formidable Republicans enter the race or not. Recent public polling showed that Schweitzer may be an even stronger candidate than Baucus, given all of the baggage tied to the incumbent’s nearly 40 years in Washington.
“If he runs, obviously that is a top-tier candidate in Montana,” one Democratic operative said. “But whether he does or not, it doesn’t change the fact that the GOP bench is a mess.”
Roll Call contributing editor Stuart Rothenberg rates this race as a Tossup in the Rothenberg Report.
Even Republicans in the state expect Schweitzer, who is believed to have presidential ambitions in 2016, will run for the seat. His popularity soared after a speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention and in the years, since he's been a regular headliner on the national fundraising circuit.
There are already two Republicans running for the seat, state Rep. Champ Edmunds and former state Sen. Corey Stapleton, who is considered the stronger of the two. But Baucus’ exit is likely to spur others to take a serious look at the race, including freshman Rep. Steve Daines, who considered running for Senate in 2012, and former Gov. Marc Racicot. Both could likely raise significant sums of money if they jump in.
“No matter how you spin it if you’re a Democrat, an open seat is just much more uncertain and much more difficult,” longtime Montana Republican operative Erik Iverson said. “I think this opens up a real opportunity for Republicans.”
Even with Baucus’s leadership in passing President Barack Obama’s health care law, the $1.6 million he raised in the first quarter of 2013 and his $4.9 million campaign war chest gave pause to other potential GOP challengers. It's not as clear whether Schweitzer’s candidacy, should there be one, can do the same.