Baucus departure creates wide-open race, but Schweitzer looms large

2013-04-23T13:55:00Z 2014-05-28T13:32:23Z Baucus departure creates wide-open race, but Schweitzer looms largeBy MIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau State Bureau The Billings Gazette

HELENA — Sen. Max Baucus’ surprise announcement Tuesday that he won’t run for re-election in 2014 throws a big, fat curveball into next year’s U.S. Senate race in Montana.

But while many who weren’t considering the race are now giving it a second look, one name comes to mind immediately: Brian Schweitzer, Montana’s Democratic ex-governor.

“It all comes back to one person, and that’s the man who’s sitting in the cat bird’s seat, and that’s Brian Schweitzer,” said Montana State University political scientist Dave Parker. “If he decides to run, I think it’s his seat.”

Schweitzer said Tuesday morning that he’s concentrating only on his current project of helping a dissident investor group take control of the Stillwater Mining Co. in south-central Montana.

“I’ve been focusing solely on saving 1,700 jobs over there at the mine in Nye,” he said. “That will be decided May 2.”

Yet Schweitzer, who earlier has thrown cold water on suggestions that he might challenge Baucus in a primary, said he’s not ruling out a U.S. Senate candidacy.

“Some people, when they see a pickup broke down alongside the road, they just drive on by,” he said. “I’m the type who likes to stop, and see if he can fix the thing. … The U.S. Senate is the biggest broke-down pickup in America.”

Two Democratic groups — the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America — also announced Tuesday that they are launching “draft Schweitzer” campaigns or petitions.

Perhaps the second name on the list is Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, elected just six months ago, but who said Tuesday that he’s giving the Senate race “serious and thoughtful consideration.”

Former Montana congressman Rick Hill, who lost the 2012 race for governor of Montana, said Tuesday that he’ll be encouraging Daines to run, calling him one of a “new generation” of leaders in the state Republican Party.

“I’m going to do everything I can to convince Steve Daines to run,” Hill said.

Daines said he’s “humbled” by the calls from others encouraging him to run, and that it’s important that the Senate seat is filled “by someone prepared to change the direction and culture of our nation.”

Of course, two Republicans already are in the race for U.S. Senate, announcing within the past two months: former gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Corey Stapleton of Billings and state Rep. Champ Edmunds of Missoula.

Yet Edmunds said late Tuesday that if Daines enters the race for U.S. Senate, Edmunds would drop out and run for the U.S. House seat that Daines would be vacating in 2014.

Stapleton said Tuesday that Baucus’ departure doesn’t change his plans, because his campaign was “never a referendum” on Baucus, but rather “about what I think the next 10 or 15 years need to look like in our state and our country.”

With Baucus out the picture, numerous other names — Democrats and Republicans — are surfacing in political circles as possible candidates for the U.S. Senate seat that Republicans have never won since direct election of Senate seats began in 1913.

Republican Attorney General Tim Fox, just elected to his new job in 2012, seemed to indicate he wasn’t interested in the Senate race.

“Montanans elected Tim Fox to serve as their attorney general,” said his spokesman, John Barnes. “He looks forward to serving them in that capacity and working hard to make Montana safer and more prosperous in the months and years to come.”

Former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, who just took a new job with a Washington, D.C., public relations and policy firm, couldn’t be reached for comment.

On the Democratic side, those mentioned as possible candidates included state Auditor Monica Lindeen, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau and Stephanie Schriock of Butte, a former campaign manager for Sen. Jon Tester who is now president of Emily’s List, a Washington, D.C., political group that helps female candidates.

Juneau said Tuesday that she’s not ruled it out, and Democratic sources said that Lindeen hasn’t, either. Schriock couldn’t be reached for comment.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the national group dedicated to winning Senate seats for the GOP, said Tuesday that Baucus was “waving a white flag rather than face the voters,” and suggested Baucus would have trouble defending the Affordable Care Act.

Yet Parker and other Montana political scientists said Baucus would have been tough to beat, given his prodigious fundraising — he’d already raised $5 million — and his lengthy record of helping Montanans.

“I don’t buy into the claim that he was going to get whipped,” said Craig Wilson, professor of political science at MSU Billings. “He knows how nasty the campaign was going to be. It may just not be worth it.”

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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