For Ambitious Montana Politicians, the Time Is Now

Posted October 9, 2013 at 3:44pm

This cycle presents incredible opportunities for Big Sky Country pols with congressional aspirations.

An open race for Senate and a likely open race for the at-large House seat mean there’s no time like the present to try to come to Congress from Montana.

This kind of political opportunity hasn’t occurred in the state for almost four decades — since Democratic Sen. Max Baucus ascended from the House in 1978. Baucus will retire in 2014, and as a result, as many as a dozen candidates will attempt to clamber to Congress this year in the state.

Republicans expect freshman Rep. Steve Daines to announce his bid for Senate any day now and say his candidacy would clear the field. A long list of Republicans and some Democrats are seeking his seat.

Montana political insiders said the state leans right, but they also caution there’s a huge base of independent voters. Democrats argue that both the Senate and House race will be competitive.

“Montana is at a real crossroads politically,” said John Lewis, a former top aide to Baucus and a Democratic candidate for the at-large House seat. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty.”

Assuming Daines runs for Senate, next November he’ll face either Lt. Gov. John Walsh or Dirk Adams, a former banker and current cattle rancher. Both Democrats have already declared their candidacies.

Adams “came out of nowhere,” a Democratic source quipped.

Democratic insiders say party brass is pumping Walsh, a former member of the Montana National Guard. He served as the state’s adjutant general before being elected lieutenant governor in 2012.

Party operatives recruited Walsh after their top choice, popular former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, unexpectedly declined to run for Senate.

Much of the state’s Democratic bench includes other pols who declined to run for the Senate seat: state Auditor Monica Lindeen, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, former Rep. Pat Williams, and Denise Juneau, the state superintendent of public instruction.

For years, Democrats often mentioned former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger as a top candidate. But a local consultant noted the 77-year-old’s name is heard increasingly less often.

For the likely open House seat, Democrats have coalesced behind former Baucus aide Lewis. A Democratic source said up-and-coming state Rep. Amanda Curtis had considered a run as well but decided against it.

By comparison, the GOP field for the House seat is large and unwieldy.

Some potential contenders include state Rep. Champ Edmunds, former Secretary of State Brad Johnson, former state Sen. Corey Stapleton, state Sen. Matt Rosendale, former state Sen. Ryan Zinke and state Rep. Elsie Arntzen.

“I think they’re all great Republicans, and we’ve worked with them before,” state party Executive Director Bowen Greenwood said of the field.

State Sen. Jon Sonju appeared to be the most formidable challenger until recently. He suddenly dropped out of the race just a few weeks after telling the Billings Gazette “I’m all in.” Sonju cited family reasons.

“Tall, handsome, young, businessman, legislator,” one Republican strategist gushed. “No one knows why he dropped out.”

Many of these Republicans would consider a Senate bid if Daines decided against running — but Republicans cautioned that is highly unlikely.

Democrats argue a crowded GOP field will work in their favor in 2014.

“I would call it ‘The Three Stooges’ if there weren’t five to seven of them,” said John Bacino, chief of strategy for the Montana Democrats.

Among the GOP candidates, Greenwood acknowledged the weakness for most of them is a lack of name recognition. Still, Greenwood said the same was true for Democrats, explaining that multiple state-level Democratic politicians are sitting this cycle out, including Juneau, Lindeen and McCulloch.

A Republican strategist said the mayors of Montana’s biggest cities — Republican Tom Hanel of Billings and Democrat John Engen of Missoula — could eventually run for higher office.

Farm Team is a weekly, state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress.