Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Max Baucus Shocks Washington and Montana...and just made Montana interesting for 2014

Tuesday morning, I had just gotten back from dropping my youngest off to day care and was getting ready to transcribe my last interview for chapter 2 of my book on the Tester-Rehberg race. I was damn excited—I was going to get the chapter started this week, and once that was finished, the rest of the book was going to fall into place.

And then, at about 8:30 a.m., my former student Jim Cave posted a link to the Washington Post story breaking the news: Max Baucus was retiring at the end of his term.

Let’s just say I did not spend a single minute on the book yesterday. Instead, I spoke to everyone and everybody about Senator Baucus’ retirement and its political implications. Not too long ago, I had written a piece saying that Max Baucus remained a favorite for reelection. I still maintain that was the case had he remained in the race. His war chest of $5 million is formidable, incumbents are hard to beat, and thus far the Republican candidates who have announced are not raking in the cash (Baucus raised $1.5 million in the last fundraising quarter compared to Corey Stapleton’s $140,000. No numbers have been reported yet for Champ Edmunds). Sure, the Senator’s approval ratings were not great. Sure, the race would be tighter than people might have expected. And sure, I can spin a yarn about how Senator Baucus’ situation looked pretty similar to Senator Frank Church in Idaho in 1980 (who also was chair of a powerful committee supporting the agenda of an unpopular president in his state and who ultimately lost a close race). But at the end of the day, Baucus would raise $15 million, Governor Schweitzer would stay away, the Republicans would not field a challenger comparable to Idaho Congressman Steve Symms, and Baucus would win a seventh term. So why did Senator Baucus step away when reelection, while tough, would likely be the order of the day?

There are lots of reasons why, but I’m not sure fear of losing is one of them. I can point to instances where an incumbent walked away with the sure knowledge that they would lose (Jim Bunning and John Ensign come to mind recently). But the case wasn’t as clear with Baucus. His fundraising was strong, his organization solid, and he appeared to be keeping strong challengers and the money flowing to them at bay. Senator Corey Stapleton MIGHT have some strong political skills, but who would know his story if he didn’t have money to tell it? Maybe Baucus feared the formidable Governor Schweitzer in a primary. Doubtful, too. While it is clear to me that Governor Schweitzer misses the game, what would Schweitzer gain from such a move long term? He MIGHT beat the Senator, and he MIGHT have won in the fall, but he would have upset the political establishment in the state and in the party. An establishment that’s useful when governing and perhaps useful if one wishes to run for higher office in the future (such as the presidency). Primary contests against well-entrenched incumbents are tough to pull off even in an environment where it has happened more regularly than in the past (see Senator Dick Lugar and Bob Bennett).

I think three factors were important in the Senator deciding to retire. First, I think he knew full well that he would need to raise $15 million to win this race, which he was fully capable of doing as Senate Finance chair. But, I don’t think he wanted to do it. Raising money is a tough and long slog that requires lots of travel all over the country. That’s a tall order at any age, but particularly so at 71.
Second, it is not clear that going back to the Senate for another term would be all that and a bag of chips. Consider this: Senator Baucus is chairman of a powerful committee that isn’t as powerful when the party leadership has shown a willingness to legislate outside and around it. That makes that chairmanship less powerful, less interesting, and less prestigious. Add the fact that many of the long-term members the Senator has served with have either left the chamber or have died. These were folks he had relationships with and that he could influence. He has far less influence as a centrist in an increasingly polarized body without those long-standing relationships. Consider the number of centrist politicians who have left the chamber recently: Kent Conrad, Byron Dorgan, Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, Dick Lugar, Olympia Snowe, Bob Byrd, and Tim Johnson to name only a few. I’m sure that if I sat down and did a rigorous analysis, I’d find that centrist Senators have been increasingly likely to step aside in recent years because of the constant difficulties they face in being pulled by each extreme in the two parties. Every vote that is taken because a potential campaign issue—something to not take lightly in an era of Citizens United where a person can raise millions of dollars and dump it into your race unexpectedly and at the drop of a hat. The ability to control the campaign narrative is rapidly disappearing in this environment. What’s the point of winning if you can’t ultimately govern in the manner you believe is best?

Third and finally, the Senator made mention of his wish to come back to Montana and spend time with family. Anyone who lives in Montana and has made a life here knows that Montana gets into your soul and bones. People live here because of the land, the space, and the lifestyle. Travelling back and forth to Washington over forty years is hard enough, but to leave Montana? That’s almost impossible and heart-wrenching. As Governor Schweitzer said, can you blame him for wanting to come home? The Senator is newly re-married and is building a house in Bozeman. Given the shock waves throughout Montana and the surprise by which the announcement took his own staff, I believe the Senator when he says that the reason for announcing his retirement was largely personal and not because of any fear of losing. He wants to come home while he still can and enjoy the Last, Best Place unlike so many friends that died in the Senate, away from their homes.
Love him or hate him, one cannot deny that Senator Baucus has been responsible for millions of dollars in federal dollars and projects throughout Montana over the years. He has played an important role in conservation, healthcare reform, the Bush tax cuts, and free trade. What Max Baucus has done for the state and the legacy he leaves behind will be debated for years. The political implications of his departure will be felt well beyond Montana. It will mean a new finance chair in 2015 regardless of which party wins control of the chamber, and I suspect that Senator Tester will seek Senator Baucus’ seat on agriculture. 

Senator Baucus’ stepping aside has created a rare open seat opportunity in Montana, the first since 1976. Open seats provide the best opportunity for the party out of control to capture a seat. Generally, this means well-qualified challengers on both sides of the aisle jump into the fray.
This open seat, however, is not truly “open” because there is one candidate sitting in the catbird’s seat that would alter competitive dynamics dramatically. What he decides determines whether this race will be truly competitive or whether the Democrats will retain the seat with little effort. That candidate, of course, is ex-Governor Brian Schweitzer. He is currently the most popular politician in the state. He has a flair for the dramatic and is beloved by independents in an independent-minded state. And he is often talked about as presidential material. While in the past I have generally dismissed the Governor as a Senate candidate, the situation is now different. 2016 is a long way off and with increasing chatter of Clinton and/or Biden running, the path forward for the presidential nomination becomes more challenging for the ex-Governor. While Schweitzer acquitted himself well in two national convention speeches, he is still a relative unknown without a large national fundraising apparatus in place. A Senate seat might provide him with the platform to build a national brand, and that might be tempting for someone who I believe to be clearly interested in the White House. Without an incumbent in the way, he would clear the Democratic field and perhaps the Republican field of any of the stronger candidates. If he wins, Schweitzer and the Democrats become the prohibitive favorites in the race.

Should Schweitzer not run, then the top three Republican candidates are Congressman Steve Daines, former Governor Marc Racicot, and former Congressman Denny Rehberg. Each has their strengths and weaknesses. Steve Daines ran a good race, but he just got elected to the House and turning around and cobbling together a Senate race may look disingenuous to the voters. It is also risky. If he loses, there’s no clear political path forward for him. Former Governor Racicot is nearly as popular and well-thought of as Governor Schweitzer and he might prove to be the most formidable challenger to him. But he’s been a lobbyist for quite some time and has spent a lot of time in Washington. Wouldn’t the Democrats love that narrative as it worked so well against Congressman Rehberg in 2012. As for Congressman Rehberg, people know him, all the dirty laundry has already been aired, and he might fare better in a comparison to another candidate who is not dirt farmer Jon Tester. On the other hand, I’m not terribly convinced that’s what he wants to do. It would be his third try for the Senate, and I suspect he likes the time he’s spending with his family after sleeping on that office coach for 12 years. 

If any of the three entered the race absent Schweitzer, then it would be difficult to see which Democratic candidate could be competitive. The best candidates would be statewide office holders like Denise Juneau, Linda McCullough, or Monica Lindeen simply because all three have statewide name recognition and have put together winning statewide campaigns. That said, neither have a long list of accomplishments that the voters know much about and they would need to raise considerable amounts of money to compete with well-connected Republican candidates like Daines, Rehberg, or Racicot. If none of these Republicans run, then the race is truly wide open and could become one of the most competitive in the country as either party would have a shot of winning the seat.

The 2012 Senate campaign was a long, tough slog that witnessed more television spots than any other Senate race during the cycle. The race cost more than $50 million when you tally all the outside money and the sums raised by parties and the two candidates. Whether Montanans will be subjected to another campaign as intense and close depends largely on one man: Governor Schweitzer. When will he decide? Time will tell, but I believe it is in his best interest to wait as long as he can before that decision is made and announced. No one will make any decisions about their own future plans until he makes his, and given his statewide recognition and his favorable job reputation, he can afford to keep everyone else waiting. And that’s just the way the Governor likes it, to be sitting in the catbird seat.