With Montana Sen. Max Baucus’ surprise announcement on Tuesday that he will not seek re-election, Democrats now have six open seats to defend in 2014, raising the chances for the GOP to pick up the half-dozen they need to gain a Senate majority.
But winning the Montana seat will be tough sledding for Republicans as Democrats have history on their side, as well as an early edge in the star power of the parties’ likely candidates.
No sooner had 71-year-old Baucus announced his exit than all political eyes in Montana turned to former two-term Gov. Brian Schweitzer as the near-certain Democratic nominee.
Schweitzer, who had challenged Republican Sen. Conrad Burns in 2000, is best-known nationally as a strong advocate of single-payer healthcare.
“And make no mistake about it: Brian will begin running for president once he’s in the Senate or positioning himself to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016,” former Montana Secretary of State Bob Brown, Schweitzer’s 2004 Republican opponent for governor, told me soon after Baucus’ announcement.
Should Schweitzer for any reason choose not to make the Senate race, sources in Big Sky Country agree the near-certain Democratic candidate would be state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath.
A former state attorney general, McGrath is considered one of the most formidable campaigners by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Having an open Senate contest is rare for Montanans. There has not been a Senate race without an incumbent on the ballot since 1976, when Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield stepped down and was succeeded by fellow Democratic Rep. John Melcher.
For their part, Republicans have been watching a nomination battle brew between two able, but relatively unknown, state legislators: former state Sen. Corey Stapleton, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, and state Rep. Champ Edmunds, both considered strong conservatives. But neither has caught fire so far, state sources say.
Less than 24 hours after Baucus’ announcement, there has been talk of a third Republican getting into the Senate sweepstakes: Rep. Steve Daines, who handily won election to Montana’s lone House seat last year after Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg left to run unsuccessfully for the Senate.
“Steve seriously explored the Senate race in ’12, but chose the House race after Denny declared for the Senate,” recalled Bob Brown. “While he may have only been in the House two years, Steve is by far the best horse we could run in the race.”
History is against Montana Republicans when it comes to the U.S. Senate.
In the century-long history of popular election of senators, only two Republicans have been elected from the state: Zales Ecton (1947-53) and Conrad Burns (1989-2007).
More often than not, Senate races are cliff-hangers in Montana.
In 1960, former Republican Rep. Orvin Fjare lost a tight battle to Democrat Lee Metcalf for an open seat. Twelve years later, Metcalf barely staved off state Sen. Hank Hibbard, a conservative Republican.
In his winning Senate races — against Burns in 2006 and against Rehberg in 2012 — Democrat Jon Tester emerged as the victor in contests that in both cases were among the last in the United States to be decided.
So for any Republican Senate nominee in Montana in 2014, the big question may be whether a near-win can be pushed into a sure win.
John Gizzi is a special columnist for Newsmax.com.
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