Even With Subpar Foes, Baucus Takes No Chances

Posted February 25, 2008 at 6:21pm

On the day of his re-election announcement last week, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) had opened no fewer than eight campaign offices in the state.

He also had hired 35 full-time campaign staffers, according to his campaign, and was holding on to more than $6 million in his campaign bank account.

With no top-tier opponent in sight and the filing deadline less than four weeks away, why is the Senate Finance chairman running like he is 20 points behind in the polls?

“Max is literally the most focused candidate I’ve ever seen,” said Baucus Chief of Staff Jim Messina. “The week after the 2002 election, he asked for a six-year political plan. He’s going to leave absolutely nothing to chance.”

Messina, who also ran Baucus’ 2002 campaign, said he has a calendar on his desk with two daily countdowns. True to the Baucus campaign tradition, Messina is quick to say that there are 25 days until the March 20 state filing deadline and 251 days until the general election in November.

“We are quite literally going to bury anyone who gets in our way,” Messina said. “[Baucus has] seen too many colleagues that didn’t take it seriously and lost. And he’s just not going to do that.”

That’s why the campaign plans to have more than 50 full-time staffers on the ground by the June 3 primary, he said. It plans to raise more than $12 million this cycle — a war chest that goes a long way in an inexpensive media state like Montana. Freshman Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) spent $5.6 million on his tough 2006 battle to oust then-Sen. Conrad Burns (R), who put up $8.5 million for the fight.

An eight-digit campaign war chest is a high number even for a vulnerable Senator up for re-election, but it is noteworthy considering Baucus has not had a tough race since then-Lt. Gov. and now-Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) ran against him in 1996 and got 45 percent of the vote to the Senator’s 50 percent.

This cycle, three Republicans have filed to run against Baucus: Engineer Kirk Bushman, former state House Majority Leader Michael Lange and political newcomer Anton Pearson.

“We have a great slate of candidates right now and we’re excited about Mr. Bushman, Mr. Lange and even Mr. Pearson, who has filed now, and we look forward to a spirited campaign whoever our nominee is and we look forward to win in November,” said Montana Republican Party Communications Director Chris Carter.

Carter also noted that as part of Baucus’ hefty campaign contribution haul, he’s accepted millions of dollars from political action committees.

“We don’t think that necessarily benefits Montanans,” he added.

National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher said the national GOP is not conceding the race.

“We have solid candidates in Mike Lange and Kirk Bushman and we believe the voters are ready for a different representative in Washington, D.C.,” Fisher said.

However, none of the Republicans has amassed a campaign even remotely comparable to Baucus’. Through the end of 2007, Bushman and Lange’s campaign finance records showed a combined $7,800 in cash on hand — a sliver of Baucus’ almost $6.3 million. As a new candidate, Pearson has yet to file any financial reporting forms to the Federal Election Commission.

And as one Democratic operative in the state pointed out, Baucus might be running scared because the state, despite recent Democratic gains, does have have a tradition of voting for Republicans statewide, particularly in presidential election. A Democratic presidential candidate has not won Montana since 1992.

However, Democrats have won statewide recently, including freshman Tester’s close win over Burns in 2006 and popular Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s (D) 2004 win. Democrats now also boast a slight edge in the state Senate and Schweitzer is favored strongly to win a second term in November.

Some political observers in the state see that as enough evidence that the Democratic showing will be even stronger this year. Though Montanans voted for Republicans statewide through the 1990s, Baucus was first elected to the Senate in 1978, when the Big Sky State had reliable Democratic tendencies.

“Democrats out here are still going to run real hard and Max will too because we’ve known for years that we’re a little lean to get complacent,” the Democratic operative said. “It’s tough out here. It’s one of the best times in recent years to be a Democrat in Montana.”