National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) made clear last week that if Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) does not run for Senate in 2008, the GOP will have a hard time targeting Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) next year. [IMGCAP(1)]
“Everybody agrees he’s an A-plus candidate,” Ensign said in an interview.
But Rehberg has not taken the bait yet. And his reluctance means there may not be much political movement in the Treasure State for the foreseeable future.
Shortly after the midterm elections in November, Rehberg said he would not try to unseat Baucus, who became the Senate Finance chairman when the Democrats gained control of Congress. More recently, he has not answered the question directly.
“Everything I’ve heard is that Rehberg is going to stay where he’s at, but he has tremendous talent and his ceiling in this state is as high as he wants it to be,” said one Republican operative in Montana who did not want to be named.
Though a recent poll showed the state’s only Congressman trailing Baucus by the thinnest of margins in a hypothetical matchup, Rehberg might be hesitant to give up his seat to take on the man who beat him in 1996.
Badly outspent, Rehberg, then lieutenant governor, was still able to win 45 percent of the vote. He was elected to the House four years later.
Rehberg’s mixed signals could prevent other Republicans from jumping into the fray.
“His waiting and watching might be holding off other worthy Republicans from diving into that contest … but that will end pretty soon,” predicted Jim Farrell, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party.
“If Rehberg were to jump into the Senate race, other Republicans would likely stay out,” Farrell said. “I don’t know how long they’re willing to wait on Rehberg … it’s kind of early but Rehberg does not appear, at this moment, to be running.”
Farrell and Montana Republicans agree that if Rehberg has not made a move by the time the state Legislature adjourns in May, other ambitious pols will forge ahead.
The names most often mentioned, according to the Republican operative, are: state House Majority Leader Mike Lange; state Senate Minority Leader Corey Stapleton; and Montana Secretary of State Brad Johnson.
Bob Keenan, the former state lawmaker who challenged then-Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) in last year’s Republican primary, is also said to be contemplating a bid.
Lange, Stapleton and Johnson also could be eyeing the 2008 gubernatorial race or a Congressional race in the event Rehberg runs for Senate, making the House contest an open one.
“I think there are a lot of good people in our state who can serve our state well, whether that will be me or someone else, I don’t know,” Stapleton said. “I think there’s a lot of Montanans who feel they can make a positive change and I would be part of that movement.”
Lange, Johnson and Keenan did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
A spokesman for Johnson said his boss is running for re-election as secretary of state.
Running for governor could be a tall order for Republicans, because the approval ratings of Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) remain high.
“We take nothing for granted because Montana is still a pretty red state,” Farrell said. Baucus “will work very hard to be re-elected, as he always has. We feel our chances are very good.”
Baucus won a fifth term in 2002 with 63 percent of the vote.
Republicans are also bullish on their odds.
“I think in [the gubernatorial or Senate] races, I think we’re going to have a good shot.” said Chris Wilcox, executive director of the Montana Republican Party. “I think anyone who is passionate on the issues certainly has a very good shot.”
Rumors that Jim Foley, executive assistant vice president of the University of Montana, might challenge Rehberg began circulating last week when Foley visited Capitol Hill.
He also is forming an exploratory committee, according to one knowledgeable Democratic operative who did not want to be named.
However, Foley, a former Baucus aide, has considered runs before, and neither he nor the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee would confirm if he paid a visit to the party’s headquarters.
Foley did not respond to repeated inquiries for this story.
Democrats in Montana and Washington, D.C., say they have a number of viable House candidates.
Often mentioned as up-and-comers, if not 2008 Congressional contenders, are a host of “young turks.”
State Sen. Jesse Laslovich has served in the Legislature since he was 18 and is about to bump up against term-limit laws.
“He’s brilliant, he has great political skills, he’s a real phenom,” Farrell said. “He’s like a young Bill Clinton in the best sense. A lot of Democrats have great hopes; I think he’s a future Senator or governor or Congressman; he’s remarkable.”
Another young lawmaker to watch is state Rep. Dan Villa, Farrell said.
“He’s another young turk who we expect great things from; he’s a real leader at 25.”
Buzz also surrounds Steve Bullock, a Helena attorney, though he seems committed to running for state attorney general.
“If he loses the primary, he might run for Congress in 2010,” said another knowledgeable Democrat who did not want to be named.
State Rep. Michele Reinhart is another Democrat to keep an eye on, the source said.
And former Insurance Commissioner John Morrison, whose 2006 Senate bid tanked after revelations of an extramarital affair, could attempt a political comeback.
“I do think we’ll see John Morrison running for office again — probably not 2008,” the Democratic operative said. “There’s good affection for him the party.”
On the Republican side, the GOP operative said they too have some young folks filling their bench, including state Rep. Jon Sonju, Kurt Alme, who works for the U.S. attorney in Billings, and Helena attorney Tim Fox.