Good news, bad news here. First, the news itself:
Montana Sen. Max Baucus will not seek reelection in 2014, becoming the latest senior red-state Democrat to bail out of a potentially difficult reelection campaign, a senior Democratic official confirmed to POLITICO. Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, had nearly $5 million in the bank at the end of the first quarter but was expected to face a tough fight in his GOP-leaning home state.
The good news is that Baucus joins a growing list of red and purple-state Democrats who aren't interested in facing voters next year, increasing Republicans' chances of making significant gains in the upper chamber. The GOP needs to net six seats to seize the Senate -- still a very tall task, but one that's made easier by this roster:
Baucus joins colleagues Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Carl Levin of Michigan and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey in exiting the 2014 race. His Montana seat is likely to be one of the toughest on that list for Democrats to defend.
Of these open races, Republicans simply must have at least three of the following four seats to have a prayer of displacing Harry Reid as majority leader: Johnson's, Harkin's, Rockefeller's, and now Baucus'. The plan would also require knocking off a string of vulnerable incumbents, including North Carolina's Kay Hagan, Arkansas' Mark Pryor, Louisiana's Mary Landrieu, and Alaska's Mark Begich. Of the eight Senators listed, seven represent states carried by Mitt Romney last fall (Iowa being the lone exception). So the good news from a conservative perspective is that the tracherous road for the DSCC is getting tougher, and a realistic path to a GOP majority is at least in sight. Baucus was re-elected in 2008, carrying 73 percent of the vote and winning every county in the state. The fact that he's languishing in the mid-40s (see below) demonstrates how far he's fallen. The bad news? Baucus may actually have been easier to supplant as an incumbent. Democratic sources in the state tell me that the senior Senator isn't especially popular back home, a fact underscored by a recent poll that showed former Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer leading Baucus in a potential primary match-up. Schweitzer posted the results on his Facebook page, fueling speculation that he was considering a run at Baucus and perhaps chasing the incumbent from the race. Schweitzer is well-liked in Montana, and could make it harder for Republicans to pick off the seat if he decides to run, which looks more likely than ever. For context, Mitt Romney won Montana by 14 points last year, but Tester managed to hang on by four points, despite voters' disapproval of Barack Obama. Nevertheless, Republicans have four elements in their favor at the moment: (1) Indecision on the other side, (2) a national discussion about gun control -- anathema to Montana voters that could allow the GOP to nationalize the election there, (3) a president who's very unpopular in the state, and (4) several potential candidates who are effectively tied with Schweitzer in hypothetical match-ups:
A February survey from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found that Baucus was polling in the mid-40s and trailing both GOP Rep. Steve Daines and former Gov. Marc Racicot in general election matches. Schweitzer was effectively tied with both top-tier Republicans in the same poll, leading Daines by 3 points and following Racicot by 1 point.
For his part, Schweitzer seemed to rule out a Senate run last year, taking a pointed shot at the institution: "I am not goofy enough to be in the House, and I'm not senile enough to be in the Senate." Schweitzer attracted negative attention for telling an out-of-state group of trial lawyers that he used his power as governor to exert ethically-questionable influence on the electoral process to help secure Sen. Jon Tester's narrow 2006 victory over Republican Conrad Burns. Schweitzer claims he was joking. He also told an Ohio group that many of his state's voters are "racists" and "rednecks." Baucus recently described Obamacare's implementation as a "huge train wreck." He was a key co-author of the 2010 law. Aides say that because Baucus is liberated from his re-election struggle, he can focus on pushing for comprehensive tax reform, free from partisan pressures. I'll leave you with the NRSC's statement on the race:
"Just days after calling ObamaCare a 'train wreck,' its architect Max Baucus waved the white flag rather than face voters. ObamaCare has gone from being an ‘abstract’ discussion to a real life pain for workers and families, which has Democratic candidates like Bruce Braley, Mark Pryor, Mark Begich and Kay Hagan backpedaling. Vulnerable Democrats will face voters just as ObamaCare's tax hikes, mandates, fees, penalties, and red tape bureaucracy take shape over the next eight months, and Senator Baucus' retirement reflects that political reality. The 2014 electoral map is in free–fall for Democrats, who were already facing a daunting challenge."
If the GOP has a big cycle next year, it will share one major theme with 2010's tidal wave: Obamacare.