HELENA — State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau on Monday became the latest high-profile Democrat to say no to running for Montana’s open U.S. Senate seat next year, leaving Democrats still without a candidate for what’s expected to be a critical electoral battle on the national stage.
Juneau, 46, also said she won’t be running for Montana’s sole U.S. House seat, and that she wants to remain as the state’s top public-education official.
“I love serving as the superintendent of public instruction for the state of Montana and am proud of the progress I have made over the last four years,” she said. “There is still much I want to accomplish during my term to ensure every child is offered a quality public education in our state.”
Juneau is the third prominent Montana Democrat in recent weeks to decline to enter the race for the seat held by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who announced in March he won’t seek re-election.
Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who looked like he was preparing to run, announced July 13 he would not be a candidate, and state Auditor Monica Lindeen did the same several days later.
The seat — which Republicans have never won in Montana since voters began electing U.S. senators directly in 1914 — is now looking like a big problem for Democrats to hold, as one top-tier candidate after another declines the race, said Montana State University political scientist David Parker.
Parker also said Monday he’s not surprised that Democrats are backing away from the contest, given political history and the possibility that Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines of Montana may enter the race.
Since the 1930s, mid-term congressional elections have almost always gone poorly for the party in control of the White House, Parker said, and President Barack Obama is not particularly popular in Montana.
“Both in Montana and nationally, it will be a tough environment (for Democrats),” he said. “And if the national environment is bad, you’ve got to have some pretty good skills and resources to counter it.”
Baucus, 71, shocked the state in April by announcing he would retire next year, leaving the U.S. Senate after six terms, including the last eight years as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.
His departure made Montana one of the top races where Republicans felt they could pick up a seat in their quest to win majority control of the U.S. Senate in 2014.
So far, only two people have officially declared themselves as candidates for the seat, both Republicans: Former state Sen. Corey Stapleton of Billings and state Rep. Champ Edmunds of Missoula.
However, some Republicans have been pushing Daines to get into the race, and he’d raised $563,000 in campaign funds as of June 30. Daines has said he’s considering the Senate race, but he has not made a decision.
Parker said Monday he’d be surprised if Daines didn’t run for the U.S. Senate, and would be tough to beat, given his fundraising head start and the fact that Montana’s most prominent Democrats have taken themselves out of contention.
Democrats might be better off concentrating on winning the open U.S. House seat created if Daines decides to go for the Senate, Parker said.
Two other Democrats have been mentioned as possible candidates for the U.S. Senate seat: Lt. Gov. John Walsh and former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger.
Bohlinger has said he’s giving the candidacy “serious thought.” Walsh hasn’t ruled it out, but has said he’s not given it that much thought.
Juneau won re-election last year as state superintendent of schools — but just barely — defeating Republican Sandy Welch by 2,231 votes out of more than 468,000 cast.
She was first elected to the post in 2008. An attorney who also holds a master’s degree in education from Harvard, Juneau had worked as a division administrator at the Office of Public Instruction before running for the superintendent slot.