HELENA — Montanans can expect another high-profile U.S. Senate race next year, but, at this point, the 2014 contest for the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Max Baucus is still missing something: A high-profile candidate.
The lack of big names in the race, however, is likely to change soon.
Montana’s only congressman, Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, is all but certain to run, state Republicans say, and would be considered by most to be the front-runner once he declares his candidacy.
Daines, 51, has been steadily raising campaign funds and will file his next funding report Oct. 15. Political insiders speculate that he’ll declare his intentions sometime after the report is filed.
Daines won’t be without competition from people who also can claim some statewide name recognition.
Democratic Lt. Gov. John Walsh, a former adjutant general of the Montana National Guard, has been eyeing the race and said last week he’ll announce “soon” what he’ll do. Most Democratic insiders believe he’ll be a candidate.
“I’m seriously considering running for the U.S. Senate,” he said in a statement.
John Bohlinger — a former Republican state legislator from Billings who served eight years as lieutenant governor with Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer — said he, too, is preparing to enter the race as Democrat.
“I think clearly that Daines will be the Republican nominee,” Bohlinger said in an interview last week. “It’s a question of who can beat Daines, and I believe I can beat Daines. …
“I believe it’s important not only for Montana but for our country that we maintain a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate. Because of my statewide name recognition, I think I can win in November (2014).”
The national battle for control of the U.S. Senate next year raises the profile of Montana’s 2014 Senate contest, as Republicans see a golden opportunity to pick up a seat held by Democrat Baucus for 35 years.
It’s one of a half-dozen Senate races nationwide where the outcome could decide whether Republicans wrest control of the U.S. Senate from Democrats, who currently have a 55-45 majority.
National political observers already are rating Montana as a possible Republican “pick-up,” and if the race is a close contest, Montanans once again will see millions of dollars of campaign money pouring into the state.
Last year’s Montana U.S. Senate contest between Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., saw nearly $20 million spent by the candidates themselves and another $20 million to $30 million by outside groups.
Tester won that race, helping Democrats unexpectedly expand their Senate majority, while Daines, a former software company executive from Bozeman, won the U.S. House seat vacated by Rehberg.
Baucus, a U.S. senator since 1979, shocked the Montana political world in April when he announced he would not run for re-election next year — despite already having raised $5 million in campaign funds. Baucus, 71, said he wanted to retire and return to Montana, where he and his wife, Melodee Hanes, are building a home in Bozeman.
When Baucus announced his retirement, two Republicans already had said they were running for his seat: Former state Sen. Corey Stapleton of Billings and state Rep. Champ Edmunds of Missoula.
Earlier this month, Stapleton switched gears and said he’s running for the House seat held now by Daines, because he believed Daines would be running for the U.S. Senate.
Edmunds is still officially a candidate for the Baucus Senate seat, but said last week that he, too, fully expects Daines to run for the Senate, and that he’ll be following Stapleton’s path of switching over to run for the U.S. House seat.
“I’ll move aside like I told (Daines) I would, and then he’d be the only Republican in the race,” Edmunds said.
Democrats also have a candidate officially in the race, but he’s hardly a household name: Wilsall rancher and attorney Dirk Adams, a political unknown who’s making his first run for office.
Adams said last week he’s been busy putting together a campaign team and speaking at county Democratic Central Committee dinners around Montana, where he sometimes has shared the stage with Bohlinger and Walsh.
Adams said he’s been pitching himself as a moderate who wants to make the federal government run well and serve the people.
“Having a federal government that is sloppy and inefficient opens the door to the kinds of actions we’ve seen on (cutting) food stamps, defunding Obamacare,” he said. “There are two solutions: Throw the baby out with the bathwater, which is the Daines' solution, or to fix it and make it work right.
“I’m the fix-it-and-make-it-work candidate.”
Daines has steadfastly deflected questions about whether he’s running for the U.S. Senate, saying he is considering it, but that he’s busy doing his current job. Meanwhile, he had rolled up $561,000 in campaign funds as of June 30, the most recent reporting period.