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Montana: State Lawmaker Is First to Challenge Baucus

State Rep. Mike Lange (R) began his quest to unseat Sen. Max Baucus (D) on Friday morning.

Even before Lange made it official, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee circulated a memo about why Lange is “not fit for the Senate.”

Lange is by no means the GOP’s strongest candidate and likely will not have the Republican field to himself.

Back in March, Lange angered his colleagues in the Legislature to the point that they stripped him of his position as state House Minority Leader.

Still, Democrats immediately criticized Lange, demonstrating how competitive any statewide race in Montana can be.

“Sen. Baucus is essentially unbeatable in Montana,” said Jim Farrell, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party. “In contrast, Mike Lange is a weak candidate and a very partisan individual.

“It will be no-holds barred,” Farrell continued. “We do it because the stakes are very high. The stakes are control of the United States Senate.”

For months National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) has tried to coax Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) into the race, but Rehberg seems perfectly content in his at-large seat.

Rehberg, then the lieutenant governor, challenged Baucus in 1996, but the current Senate Finance Committee chairman prevailed.

Just as Republicans have had difficulty recruiting top-tier challengers for Baucus or Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D), who also faces voters next year, numerous Democrats have declined to take on Rehberg.

Former Baucus aide Jim Foley, now an administrator at the University of Montana, flirted with the idea but has decided to take a pass.

Likewise, Helena attorney Steve Bullock opted to enter the state’s attorney general race, which is already teeming with Democrats, instead of run for Congress.

Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy stepped up instead. Kennedy, who has spent 15 years as a commissioner of the state’s most populous county, made an unsuccessful bid to be secretary of state in 2004.

— Nicole Duran

Thomas Family Weighs Campaign Fund Options

The late Sen. Craig Thomas (R) closed the first quarter of this year with $561,468 in cash on hand and no debt — and an official with his campaign committee said Friday that his wife, Susan, would decide how to dispense of the remaining funds once all of the committee’s financial obligations have been settled.

Gale Geringer, Thomas’ campaign manager and treasurer, said the late Senator’s wife has the final say over how the money is spent. But she declined to elaborate on which type of entity — whether political, charitable or a combination of the two — would receive donations.

“Mrs. Thomas, of course, will make those contributions to causes that share Sen. Thomas’ philosophies,” Geringer said. “She wants to take her time and carefully consider all of her options.”

Thomas easily won a third term in November but died on June 4 after a seven-month battle with leukemia. Now-Sen. John Barrasso (R) was appointed June 22 to replace Thomas and is preparing to run for the remaining four years of Thomas’ term in a November 2008 special election.

Barrasso must now ramp up his fundraising operation from scratch and bring in enough money to fend off potential GOP primary opponents as well as a possibly spirited challenge from a Democrat in the special election. By law, Thomas’ committee can donate only $4,000 to Barrasso, which would include $2,000 for the primary and $2,000 for the special.

However, Thomas’ committee is authorized to donate unlimited funds to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which in turn is free to spend an uncapped amount of cash on Barrasso via uncoordinated, independent expenditures.

— David M. Drucker

Teamsters Flex Muscle for Franken Senate Bid

Comedian Al Franken (D), who hopes to challenge Sen. Norm Coleman (R) next year, will have some serious muscle behind him as he seeks the Democratic Party nomination.

The Teamsters will support Franken when he and wealthy attorney Mike Ciresi face delegates at the state Democratic convention next summer.

Both Franken and Ciresi have pledged to drop out of the race if they do not win the endorsement, and not take the fight to a primary.

In Minnesota, the major parties bestow endorsements at local and state conventions, but they are not binding. Unsuccessful candidates can force a regular primary.

Ciresi took that route in 2000 when he lost the Democratic Senate nomination to Mark Dayton; neither was endorsed at the party convention.

While the Democratic field looks to be set, a Twin Cities-based political consultant is trying to drag freshman Rep. Tim Walz (D) into the race.

Jim Goff recently started a “Draft Walz for Senate” campaign. Petitions are circulating among Democratic activists.

Richard Carlbom, Walz’s political director, said last week that the 1st district Congressman is “flattered” but not interested.

— N.D.

Mentioned for Senate, Kleeb Seeks Donations

Scott Kleeb (D) is asking supporters for campaign contributions, though he’s not yet sure how he plans to use the money.

Kleeb, who lost last year to now-Rep. Adrian Smith (R) in the race for the 3rd district, asks supporters in an open letter on his Web site to help him “in continuing to reject partisan politics and embrace positive change.”

Kleeb’s 2006 campaign account still had almost $64,000 in it at the end of March and was debt-free, according the first-quarter report he filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Kleeb has been mentioned as a possible 2008 Senate candidate and is said by Nebraska Democrats to be a favorite among party activists. Former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) and Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey (D) also are weighing Senate bids.

On the Republican side, incumbent Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) has yet to reveal his 2008 plans. State Attorney General Jon Bruning (R) already has announced he is running no matter what Hagel does, with some Nebraska Republicans speculating that Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns will run if Hagel doesn’t.

Johanns was serving as governor when he was tapped for his current position.

— D.M.D.

House Committees Have Battle Plans Set for Recess

The House campaign operations are launching message campaigns over the July Fourth recess, with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee focusing on a limited number of Republican targets while the National Republican Congressional Committee is using a broader attack against 60-plus Democrats.

The DCCC is targeting 14 Republicans using radio ads, robocalls and Web videos. Drive-time radio ads will be running today until Friday against GOP Reps. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), Sam Graves (Mo.), Robin Hayes (N.C.), Joe Knollenberg (Mich.), Jon Porter (Nev.), Jim Walsh (N.Y.) and Don Young (Alaska); a combination of robocalls and Web videos will be used to target GOP Reps. Thelma Drake (Va.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Randy Kuhl (N.Y.), Marilyn Musgrave (Colo.) and Heather Wilson (N.M.); and Web videos will be used against GOP Reps. Phil English (Pa.) and Mike Ferguson (N.J.).

Democrats also are using targeted e-mails and more than 50,000 phone calls to their grass-roots operations to reach 2 million voters.

“At every turn we will hold them accountable for their consistent voting record of shortchanging our troops and veterans then returning home to walk in parades and give patriotic speeches,” DCCC spokesman Doug Thornell said.

On the other side, the National Republican Congressional Committee is coordinating grass-roots efforts with the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee to “drive home the message that this Congress can’t get anything done,” said Ken Spain, a spokesman for the NRCC.

There’s no money behind the effort, but the three operations are coordinating more than 60 targeted news releases, and RNC Chairman Mike Duncan, NRSC Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) and NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) are expected to do a number of radio and TV appearances this week. Cole also will be on a candidate recruiting trip this week, but his office declined to release his travel agenda. Republicans also are targeting mailings to local editorial boards and press, and they released a new Web video detailing what they call the Democratic majority’s “broken promises.”

— Susan Davis

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