HELENA — Montana Democrats left little question Saturday night what their top priority is: elect party leader Sen. Max Baucus to a seventh term in 2014.
Democrats are coming off a 2012 election cycle that saw a lot of successes — topped by re-electing U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and putting Steve Bullock in the governor's office. The party held its annual Mansfield-Metcalf fundraising dinner Saturday and the focus was all about Baucus, the top Democrat up this election cycle.
"The 2012 election is ancient history. Now we are into 2014," Tester said. "Max Baucus is a leader. He always puts Montana first. He works his butt off and gets things done."
And Baucus, who has always been able to martial a big campaign war chest, will have plenty of help.
The night featured speeches from President Barack Obama's 2012 campaign manager and former Baucus staffer Jim Messina. Messina, who now runs Obama's nonprofit group called Organizing for Action, said in an interview he will "absolutely" do whatever Baucus needs of him.
Baucus, in a speech to about 1,000 Democrats, hit some crowd-pleasing points — such as calling for expanding gay rights and more restrictions on anonymous third-party money flowing into politics.
Baucus will assuredly be running a campaign that reminds voters that he is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee — and in a position of seniority to pack legislation full of Montana priorities.
He reminded the audience Saturday night that he included a provision in the health care bill to provide more support for asbestos victims in Libby, secured more money for habitat protection in Montana with the 2008 farm bill, made sure the highway bill expanded jobs in Montana and used his influence to bring business leaders to Montana.
"There's a lot more work to do. History is calling," Baucus told a crowd of about 1,000. "The prosperity I'm talking about also elevates entire communities."
The Democrat said its time to stop spending money on overseas conflicts, bring troops home and help them find jobs.
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"Do you know the money that's being spent in both Iraq and Afghanistan is enough to double the number of public elementary schools in the United States and rebuild the American interstate highway system five times over?" Baucus said. "The dollars spent daily in Afghanistan need to be spent on nation-building here at home."
Baucus did not spend much time talking about one of his signature legislative efforts: ushering the 2009 federal health care reform through the U.S. Senate.
But his opponents are promising to mention it a lot — even though a relentless effort by Denny Rehberg to attack Tester on the issue failed to convince voters to reject Tester.
So far, two Republicans are seeking that party's nomination to challenge Baucus.
But Republicans, who haven't given Baucus a serious challenge in nearly two decades, have yet to coalesce around a top challenger.
State Rep. Champ Edmunds of Missoula, who moved to Montana in the 1990s after a Navy career, has announced a bid for the state's top electoral prize office despite no statewide experience and a thin record in the legislature after just two years in that post.
And Corey Stapleton of Billings, a former leader in the state Senate, launched a bid for the office after falling short last year in the GOP primary for governor.
Both Stapleton and Edmunds have so far been angling in early campaigning for the conservative vote key to winning a GOP primary battle.
"If elected to the U.S. Senate, I would vote to defund Obamacare, the handiwork of Sen. Baucus," Edmunds promised in a message Saturday over his Twitter account.