HELENA — Every U.S. Senate race is a big one.
But when a seat that has been occupied by Democrats for 100 years is up for grabs for the first time in 36 years, and control of the U.S. Senate hangs in the balance, well, that adds a little extra spice to another red-hot election season.
Senior Montana Sen. Max Baucus’ announcement last April that he would not seek a seventh term sent shock waves through Montana’s — and the nation’s — political establishments.
Baucus, the Democratic chairman of the powerful Senate finance committee, was nearly untouchable over the past two election cycles and would have been the heavy favorite again in 2014.
Not since former Lt. Gov. Denny Rehberg came within five points of Baucus in 1996 has a Republican candidate come remotely close to taking skin off the seemingly invincible Baucus, who won with 63 percent of the vote in 2002 and garnered a whopping 73 percent of the vote in 2008.
So when Baucus made the surprise announcement that he would not seek re-election, candidates on both sides of the aisle lined up to try to replace him. For the second time in as many election cycles, Montana is poised to garner national attention as Republicans seen to wrest control of the U.S. Senate from the Democrats.
David Parker is an associate professor of political science at Montana State University and the author of a forthcoming book about Montana’s hard-fought 2012 Senate race between Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg and incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.
Parker said while there are similarities between this year’s contest and the brutal 2012 campaign, it’s not likely to draw the same huge sums of cash and unyielding political attacks.
“It certainly will receive national attention, but I’d be hard-pressed to say it’s going to receive the attention the 2012 race did,” Parker said. “The thing that is similar is that it is clear that if the Democrats want to keep control of the U.S. Senate, then they’re going to have to defend this seat, and Republicans see this race as a good opportunity to pick up a seat.”
With control of the U.S. Senate hanging in the balance, here’s a look at the candidates lining up to square off for the chance to be Montana’s next U.S. senator.
U.S. Rep. Steve Daines
On the Republican side, the clear frontrunner is first-term Congressman Steve Daines, who easily defeated former Democratic state Sen. Kim Gillan 53-43 percent in the 2012 House of Representatives race to replace Rehberg, who gave up the seat to challenge Tester in the Senate.
Daines has already raised $1.3 million for the 2014 contest and faces an underfunded and relatively unknown challenger in state Rep. Champ Edmunds of Missoula. Edmunds, who is branding himself as the conservative choice in the GOP primary, did not return phone calls or emails for this story by late Friday.
Conventional wisdom says the Senate race is probably Daines’ to lose. That’s in part because Daines has a fundraising advantage, having already raised large sums of money for a House race that he freely transferred to the Senate race. Daines also has the edge in part because he recently won a statewide race for federal office. Add the fact that 2014 is expected to be a Republican year, with backlash against the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act likely to hurt Democrats across the board, and it stacks up to a Daines advantage heading into early stages of the 2014 election cycle.
“The party of the president tends to get punished in midterm elections, and that goes back to at least 1932,” Parker says.
For his part, Daines said he was preparing to run for re-election in the House before Baucus surprised everyone with his abrupt retirement announcement.
“We weren’t expecting Sen. Baucus to announce his retirement,” Daines said. “I stayed focused in my first year of my House assignment on the huge problems that exist here in Washington.”
Daines said as he traveled around the state, his supporters urged him to seek the Senate seat.
“The problems remain, whether you’re in the House or the Senate,” Daines said.
Daines said those problems include sluggish economic growth and large debt and deficits.
“We’ll continue to talk about the same things we’ve talked about for the past few years, and that is we need more jobs and we need less government,” Daines said. “We have a tremendous opportunity in Montana of creating jobs. I hear it everywhere I go in Montana: the opportunity for expanded timber in the western part of Montana and the opportunities we have for more oil, natural gas and coal in the eastern part of the state.”
Daines said he is also serious about addressing Montanan’s concerns about privacy issues.
“We’re hearing a lot of concerns of privacy, the IRS and the NSA intruding into our personal lives,” Daines said. “We’ve got to stand up for the rights of individual Montanans … this is not a Republican or Democrat issue. This is an issue of rights and privacy.”
Daines will likely spend much of his campaign touting his record as a Bozeman businessman who helped grow the Internet software company RightNow Technologies.
“I spent 28 years in the private sector where I got to spend the last 12 years building out a technology company right there in Montana that created 1,100 high-paying jobs,” Daines said. “We can create world-class companies right there, headquartered and based in Montana. I’m hoping to bring that experience to the United States Senate.”
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