Montana Senate Seat Has Become a GOP “Must Win”

Gov. Brian Schweitzer

Brian Schweitzer

Republicans may have just dodged a major bullet as former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) announced via telephone interview with local media on Saturday that he is not running for retiring Sen. Max Baucus’ (D) seat.

Polling was showing that the two-term ex-governor, after leaving office early this year, was the strongest candidate from either party who was reasonably considered a potential candidate. The latest Public Policy Polling survey (June 21-23; 807 registered Montana voters) did show Schweitzer trailing former Republican Gov. Marc Racicot by one percentage point, but the chances of the former statewide GOP office holder running to succeed Sen. Baucus are highly remote, so this pairing was discounted. Against all other potential or likely candidates, Schweitzer held a clear advantage.

In the interview explaining his decision not to enter the Senate campaign, the former Montana chief executive said he isn’t a good fit in a legislative body. “I’m a doer,” Schweitzer stated, “I’m used to being in charge of things, getting things done. Unfortunately, the U.S. Senate is a place where things die.”

Without Schweitzer running, the Republicans now become early favorites to convert the seat. If that became a reality, considering their favorable position for the Democratic open seats in South Dakota and West Virginia, it would bring them halfway to their goal of converting the six seats they need to capture the Senate majority.

All eyes will now turn to at-large freshman Republican Rep. Steve Daines. Two years ago, Daines began his 2012 political effort as the first GOP candidate to formally oppose Sen. Jon Tester (D). When veteran Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT-AL) entered the race, Daines backed off and declared for the open House seat. His early Senate moves, however, paid dividends.

Having a race for which to raise money and prepare a political organization gave him a head start in running for the House when that particular seat came open. A Rehberg Senate candidacy was no secret, so Daines’ strategy in jump-starting a Senate campaign (all the while understanding that his activity could convert to an eventual statewide House campaign) proved to be a strong tactical move. He easily won the Republican primary and scored a 10-point, 53-43 percent victory in the at-large general election.

This year, his strategy is exactly the opposite. Using his House campaign committee as a vehicle to raise money in order to build statewide political strength prepares him both for re-election and for the Senate, should his fortunes point in that direction. With Schweitzer now out of the senatorial contest, expect Rep. Daines to soon announce an attempt to become Baucus’ successor.

Though Rehberg will begin the open seat race in the favorite’s position, he will have to outpace serious competition, nonetheless. After the 2012 election when he fell to Sen. Tester by a 45-48 percent count, Rehberg made several public statements indicating that this foray was to be his last in elective politics. Soon after Sen. Baucus announced he would not run again, Rehberg quickly made comments that he was reconsidering his previous statements about not running again because he was receiving so much encouragement to do so. Little has been heard from Rehberg since, but he cannot be completely eliminated as a potential candidate.

Two Republicans had previously announced for the Senate, when it was thought that Baucus was planning to run for another term. Former state Senate Minority Leader Corey Stapleton and state Rep. Champ Edmunds were actively running for the seat. If Rep. Daines gets in the Senate race, count on both of these men to hop into the open House seat instead of continuing their Senate quest in an uphill primary battle against Daines.

Assuming the congressman gets a clear shot in the Republican Senate primary, which is not only possible but likely, he could face one of several Democrats, all with statewide victories in their recent political history.

Lt. Gov. John Walsh, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, state Auditor Monica Lindeen, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau are all potential Senate contenders now that former Gov. Schweitzer has made known his plans not to challenge for the seat.

Walsh was on the victorious ticket of Gov. Steve Bullock (D) in 2012 (defeating former Republican Rep. Rick Hill 49-47 percent); McCulloch won her race 51-45 percent; Lindeen scored a 53-46 percent win; and Juneau registered a bare 50.2-49.8 percent victory.

It remains to be seen which Democrats decide to challenge Daines versus entering what will likely be an open race for the House. Regardless of what happens, the Montana federal races will now become hotly contested. The Senate race enters the “Must Win” category for the Republicans, so the stakes have just been raised.

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