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Democrats Put Big-Sky Hopes on Schweitzer

Democrats don’t believe Sen. Max Baucus’ retirement will hurt their 2014 midterm election prospects — as long as their preferred recruit jumps into the race: former Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

The party’s hopes of maintaining its edge in the Big Sky State rest on the unpredictable, ambitious, bolo-tie-donning former two-term governor, whom Democrats believe is leaning toward a run.

“If he runs, obviously that is a top-tier candidate in Montana,” one Democratic operative said. “But whether he does or not, it doesn’t change the fact that the GOP bench is a mess.”

In recent cycles, the exit of a Democratic institution like Baucus from a GOP-leaning state like Montana would often yield the seat. But polls show Schweitzer is more popular than Baucus, and he has a national donor base that rivals that of the retiring senator.

For national Republicans, the addition of another open seat in a GOP-leaning state — along with West Virginia and South Dakota — offers yet another opportunity. Republicans must net six seats to win the Senate majority in 2014.

Montana is one of seven states President Barack Obama lost in 2012 where Democrats are defending a Senate seat. But until now, operatives from both parties generally viewed the Senate race as the least competitive among those seven seats.

Even with Baucus’ $4.9 million campaign war chest, his race attracted just two GOP challengers. Neither has won anything more than a state legislative race.

But now that Baucus is retiring, the GOP field could change. Rep. Steve Daines, who holds the state’s lone U.S. House seat, and former Gov. Marc Racicot have the ability to raise significant funds and would likely view the open seat as more inviting.

“No matter how you spin it, if you’re a Democrat, an open seat is just much more uncertain and much more difficult,” longtime Montana Republican operative Erik Iverson said. “I think this opens up a real opportunity for Republicans.”

Baucus is the sixth Democrat and eighth senator overall to announce he will not seek re-election next year.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Jerry Moran of Kansas told reporters Tuesday that the development “creates a little more uncertainty” about the race and that it “remains a high priority for us.”

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet of Colorado didn’t sound too nervous in his written statement.

“Democrats have had a great deal of electoral success in Montana over the last decade, and I am confident that will continue,” Bennet said.

On the surface, Baucus appeared to be doing everything necessary to run. His campaign website was active, he raised $1.6 million in the first quarter and he just voted against Democratic leadership on a gun amendment that would have provided stricter background checks.

But the Finance Committee chairman will turn 73 a month after the 2014 elections, and Baucus said in a statement that he’s looking forward to spending time with his wife and son once his term his up.

“It’s a surprise because Max was doing everything right — money, votes, getting back to Montana. All that stuff,” one Democratic operative familiar with Baucus said. “In that sense it’s surprising, but on the other hand it makes a total sense.”

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