How Baucus’s Retirement Helps Democrats Keep the Senate

Veteran lawmaker’s early departure lets party rally behind a new candidate.

Max Baucus (D-MT) speaks at a Senate Finance Committee meeting on March 20, 2007.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
Dec. 18, 2013, 3:42 p.m.

For once this year, the sur­prise was a good one for Montana Demo­crats.

The White House’s out-of-the-blue de­cision to name Sen. Max Baucus the next am­bas­sad­or to China means the state’s Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor must ap­point a suc­cessor long be­fore next year’s Sen­ate elec­tion. And that will fun­da­ment­ally change one of 2014’s biggest battle­ground races: In­stead of a free-for-all, open-seat battle, Demo­crats will get to rally be­hind a bet­ter-en­trenched in­cum­bent seek­ing a full term.

It’s the rare re­cent pos­it­ive de­vel­op­ment for Montana Demo­crats. The party’s chances of re­tain­ing the Sen­ate seat dimmed con­sid­er­ably in the spring when Baucus sur­pris­ingly op­ted against seek­ing reelec­tion, a loss com­poun­ded when former Gov. Bri­an Sch­weitzer un­ex­pec­tedly de­clined to mount his own cam­paign, dur­ing the sum­mer.

But now, just as the seat seemed to be slip­ping out of their reach, the race changed in Demo­crats’ fa­vor. They still likely enter the elec­tion as un­der­dogs, but their chances sud­denly look bet­ter.

Politico first re­por­ted the Baucus news Thursday. It also re­por­ted that Montana’s gov­ernor, Steve Bul­lock, would like tap his lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor, John Walsh, to fill Baucus’s seat. That wouldn’t be a sur­prise: Walsh was already run­ning for the Sen­ate, was the fa­vor­ite of the Demo­crat­ic es­tab­lish­ment, and has per­son­ally been praised by Bul­lock as a strong can­did­ate. In the words of one Montana Demo­crat­ic in­sider, “There’s no doubt it’s go­ing to be Walsh.”

The former mem­ber of the Na­tion­al Guard — a polit­ic­al neo­phyte un­til Bul­lock named him his run­ning mate in 2012 — was already con­sidered the strongest can­did­ate for the job. But an ap­point­ment in­to the Sen­ate of­fers a meas­ur­able boost to his can­did­acy, both in terms of name re­cog­ni­tion among voters and fun­drais­ing.

“When you’re just a can­did­ate, there’s only so much for the press to cov­er,” said the Montana Demo­crat­ic strategist. “And there’s only so much they have to cov­er. Your abil­ity to get free me­dia as a sen­at­or in a place like Montana is really sig­ni­fic­ant. It’s a really big deal for Walsh.”

Chal­lenges re­main. Sch­weitzer’s de­cision to pass opened the door for Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Steve Daines to run, and the GOP uni­ver­sally re­gards him as their strongest pos­sible con­tender. Des­pite a his­tory of elect­ing Demo­crat­ic of­fi­cials statewide, Montana is a deep shade of red for pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, and midterm years are harder still for Demo­crats. Along with Obama­care’s dis­astrous rol­lout and the pres­id­ent’s own sink­ing ap­provals, the fun­da­ment­als of the race still tilt solidly to­ward the GOP.

And tak­ing Baucus’s seat will also tar­nish Walsh’s im­age as a polit­ic­al out­sider. Run­ning against Wash­ing­ton, as Walsh cer­tainly would have done, isn’t easy for in­cum­bents, even if Walsh will have been on the job for only a mat­ter of months. “The deal un­der­cuts the lone ar­gu­ment that Demo­crats have made for John Walsh’s can­did­acy — that he’s from out­side of Wash­ing­ton with no at­tach­ment to Pres­id­ent Obama and the Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship or agenda,” said Brad Dayspring, com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or for the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee. “That ar­gu­ment is now moot, since Walsh is now Harry Re­id and Barack Obama’s hand-picked United States sen­at­or.”

Dayspring called the deal the “Big Sky Buy-Off.”

Walsh also had a primary op­pon­ent, former Lt. Gov. John Bo­hlinger. Wheth­er Bo­hlinger would con­tin­ue a primary cam­paign after Walsh’s ap­point­ment is un­clear.

Still, Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ives in the state greeted Thursday’s news op­tim­ist­ic­ally. It’s still an up­hill battle, but the climb is now a little easi­er.

“I think people were real­ist­ic about fact that any time a Demo­crat runs in Montana, it’s a hard race,” said one Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ive. “Nobody was gild­ing the lily; every­body un­der­stood it’s tough when Max Baucus ran, it’s tough when Jon Test­er ran his races.

“But, at the same time, there’s a view it’s clearly go­ing to help to have Walsh in the driver’s seat.”

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