By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
HELENA – Senate Finance Chairman and Montana Democrat Max Baucus faces that horrifying word every incumbent legislator dreads.
A powerful figure in Montana and national politics and a U.S. Senate member since 1978, Baucus could fall in the 2014 election, a number of national publications contend. Most see Baucus as a top Democrat in a state that hasn’t supported a left-leaning candidate for president for decades, a situation optimal for a Republican pick-off.
Of course, that’s what many said of Democrat Jon Tester, the state’s junior U.S. senator, just before he pounded Republican challenger Denny Rehberg in November.
Undaunted, Politico’s Dave Catanese discussed the prospect of Republicans grabbing a Senate majority in two years, marking a number of vulnerable Senate Democrats along the way. Catanese tabbed Baucus as one of a handful of senators Republicans might pick off.
Here’s Catanese’s Nov. 11 take:
Montana’s Baucus, who saw his approval ratings drop after his lead role in the polarizing health care debate, ran a weeklong radio advertisement in April to signal his pursuit of a seventh term. Outgoing Gov. Brian Schweitzer is frequently mentioned as a potential primary challenger to Baucus, who is seen by many on the left as having watered down Obamacare to make it more palatable to Republicans.
Baucus angered Montana’s conservative faction by pursuing health care reform — dubbed by some on the right as a government takeover — and enraged the left by cutting a sweetheart deal with prescription drug producers during reform negotiations.
Red State contributor Moe Lane holds a reservedly optimistic view of Baucus’ chances. He rates the Montana senator at “Some risk” for a takedown, adding, “Max Baucus is more vulnerable than he looks on paper: he’s possibly been too long in the Senate and his recent voting habits suggest that he’s come to the conclusion that he’s invincible. Montana is, however, a somewhat restive Red State, so he’s not at high risk. Yet.”
Baucus totes considerable baggage: He admitted an affair with a former staffer in late 2009, supported the Patriot Act, a bugaboo among independent-thinking Montanans, and has hauled in more than $500,000 in campaign cash from K Street lobbyists.
Age and experience could also provide some fodder for opponents. Baucus will be 72 in 2014 and when voters hit the polls that year, he will have served 36 years in the Senate.
Yet, Baucus should prove an intimidating incumbent. He holds more than $3.1 million in his campaign war chest — a staggering sum two years ahead of the November 2014 general election.
Well-moneyed interests could rush to his aid the same way they pushed Montana’s other senator, Tester, across the finish line this year.
Consider, also, that in the run-up to the 2012 election, hordes of national pundits saw Tester as a top Republican target, a Democrat in a red state ripe for the picking.
Yet, the projections never materialized and Tester will take the oath for his second term in office come January.
Bowen Greenwood, executive director for the GOP’s Montana efforts, told Politico a number of state lawmakers desire a charge at Baucus, though none have stepped up at this point.
Rumors point to former state Sen. Ryan Zinke of Whitefish, who ran for lieutenant governor earlier this year. Zinke, however, told Watchdog.org earlier this year he had no plans of jumping into the contest.
Steve Daines, Montana’s congressman-elect, wouldn’t deny interest in the Senate bid during an October debate in Billings.
Conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt suggests winning is easy: Find an inspiring candidate.
“What the GOP needs are candidates like Senators (Kelly) Ayotte, (Ted) Cruz and (Marco) Rubio, “Hewitt wrote this weekend, “and they need them in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina and South Dakota.”
In summation, the emerging candidate must survive a primary challenge, electrify the GOP base, win over independent voters and beat back millions of dollars worth of attacks from Baucus and the allies coming to his aid.
Simple enough, right? Now, who’s up for the challenge?
Contact: Dustin@Watchdog.org or @DustinHurst via Twitter.