HELENA — Several Democratic women are among those looking at the 2014 U.S. Senate race in Montana, one of about two dozen states where a woman has never been elected to the Senate.
U.S. Sen. Max Baucus announced last month that he would not be seeking re-election — leading to a lot of immediate interest in the 2014 race. It is the first open Montana Senate seat with no incumbent since the 1970s.
So far, former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer has gathered much of the focus as he considers a run. But if he declines, Democrats could see a wave of female candidates.
State auditor Monica Lindeen and state schools superintendent Denise Juneau could both be interested. And Stephanie Schrock, who leads a Washington D.C. group that supports female candidates, is also considering it.
"Brian Schweitzer could probably win that seat, and I am going to support him if he makes the decision to run. If for some reason Brian decided he is not going to run, I would probably take a look at it," said Lindeen. "Until then I am just going to continue to do my job."
Lindeen said the auditor's position, which protects consumers and regulates insurance and securities companies, makes a difference for Montanans. The former lawmaker, who once ran unsuccessfully for Congress against former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, would want to make sure she could make a difference in the Senate.
Juneau, who like Lindeen has won two statewide races for her current office, is taking a similar approach by saying "of course it all depends on Mr. Schweitzer." She said there is still plenty of time to sort out the candidates.
"I think it is exciting. I like the idea that people are talking about women running for that seat," said Juneau, a featured speaker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. "That is the fact of an open seat — at least people can talk about the possibilities."
Schriock, who heads the Emily's List political group, was U.S. Sen. Jon Tester's 2006 campaign manager. The political strategist said earlier this week she may consider the race.
Current state Rep. Franke Wilmer, who came up short last year in a Democratic primary for the U.S. House seat, has been mentioned as another possibility. She isn't ruling it out.
Montana was the first state to send a woman to Congress when Jeanette Rankin was elected in 1916 and again in 1940. But it has been 70 years since the state sent a woman to Congress — and never to the Senate, Wilmer noted.
"It makes us look very backward, and it is a bit backward," Wilmer wrote in an email.
The Montana State University political science professor said Schweitzer is obviously a "clear the decks" candidate who immediately becomes the presumptive Democratic nominee.
But she says that Juneau, who is very popular among an influential group of progressives in the Democratic Party, also has enough backing to make the rest of the field think twice about getting in a race.
"If Schweitzer or Juneau decline to run, then the first thing any other candidate has to determine is whether they can quickly raise a quarter- to half-million dollars to show they are serious and can unite and consolidate support for their candidacy," Wilmer said.
MSU political scientist David Parker said any Democrat other than Schweitzer would face a difficult matchup against potential Republicans with much more name identification, like current Congressman Steve Daines, former Congressman Denny Rehberg or former Gov. Marc Racicot. But he doesn't think gender would be much of a factor, pointing out it didn't hinder U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp last year in her successful North Dakota race.
"I honestly don't believe that it would be a negative factor at all. And it may be a positive factor," Parker said.
Another Democrat whose name has been mentioned, Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath, told The Associated Press he isn't running.
That keeps the bulk of the Democratic attention on Schweitzer as the others wait. Schweitzer, in the midst of his effort this past week to takeover Stillwater Mining Co., didn't tip his hand during a brief interview.
Daines, favored by many Republicans for his fresh approach to his new job, would only say during a recent stop in Helena that he is giving the race "thoughtful consideration." But he said there was no rush.
"Montanans are still getting over the last senate election," Daines said. "What I have heard is they would like to see their leaders solving the problems in this country rather than be focused on the next election."