The Montana Senate Waiting Game

In politics, timing is everything, and there’s great speculation as to just when Montana Rep. Steve Daines’ (R-AL) open Senate window might begin to close.

Over the weekend, retiring Sen. Max Baucus’ (D) former state director, John Lewis, announced the formation of a political campaign committee destined for what he believes will be an open US House seat. Lewis had been considered a potential Senate candidate, and still conceivably could become one should Rep. Daines decide to stay put.

So far, the freshman congressman has played this election cycle like a fiddle. Ignoring advice to announce immediately upon Sen. Baucus’ retirement plans becoming public this past April, Daines adroitly waited until former Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) made his decision. It was presumed that Schweitzer would become the prohibitive favorite if he entered the race, so everyone held their cards in anticipation. In mid-July, when he chose not to seek the seat, all of the political focus turned to the state’s lone congressman, Daines.

Relatively soon after Schweitzer took himself out of the Senate competition, state auditor, Monica Lindeen, and superintendent of public instruction, Denise Juneau, both Democrats, also decided not to pursue the contest.

But, how much longer will prospective Senate candidates wait? Since the seat came open in April, only two people have announced their candidacies, neither of whom is expected to be a major contender. For the Democrats, only rancher Dirk Adams has declared. On the GOP side, state Sen. Matt Rosendale has taken the plunge.

Previously in the race, intending to challenge Sen. Baucus when it was believed he would seek re-election, are ex-state Senate Minority Leader Corey Stapleton and state Rep. Champ Edmunds. But, it is widely believe that all three announced Republicans will move to the House race if Daines reaches for the Senate.

The Lewis move suggests that things are beginning to happen, and that the time others are yielding to Daines could soon come to an end.

Understandably, Rep. Daines wants to be politically careful. Elected for the first time last November with a strong 53-43 percent margin when the other statewide Republican candidates sans presidential nominee Mitt Romney were losing, Daines clearly remembers the last time a freshman at-large congressman bypassed his first re-election to instead run for Senate, then-Rep. Rick Berg (R) in neighboring North Dakota, which resulted in a surprising defeat.

So far, Daines is well-positioned. Remaining quiet, doing his job in the House, and raising large sums of money in the first two quarters, the congressman is poised to run for the Senate against minimal opposition. Still, he needs to send at least a clear signal that he will jump to the Senate race – many believe he will announce in mid-September – or stronger opponents from both parties may lose patience and declare their own candidacies.

Montana is key to Republican national prospects. It is one of three Democrat-held states, South Dakota and West Virginia being the other two, where retiring incumbents leave behind no strong successor and Republican conversion seems imminent. Therefore, the GOP leadership cannot afford to make a silly mistake.

The next four weeks in Montana are critical to the upcoming Senate race. If Rep. Daines announces for the seat, he becomes the prohibitive favorite and virtually all of the strong potential contenders will run for his open at-large House seat. If he decides to seek re-election, then the Senate race becomes another barn-burner.

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