Famously independent, six-term Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana has survived and even thrived in an age of intense partisan gridlock, playing key negotiating roles on issues ranging from taxes and trade policy to Medicare, health-care reform, and farm bills.
But with Montana's record of voting Republican in each of the last five presidential races – Obama lost Montana by 13 points in 2012 – Senator Baucus still faced a potentially tough race, likely to include getting hammered over his role in the health-care reform, just as the costs of that program are surfacing.
Still, his decision to retire came as a surprise to colleagues on Capitol Hill. Baucus had amassed a $5 million campaign war chest with, as yet, no announced opponent. Although targeted by Republicans for ouster, he won his last reelection with 73 percent of the vote.
With Baucus out of the race, political analysts ranked the contest a tossup. But with the decision of popular former Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) to opt out of the race, announced July 13, Republicans have a stronger shot at picking up one of the six seats they are expected to need to take back the Senate . Following the Schweitzer announcement, the Cook Political Report changed its rating for this race from tossup to lean Republican.
"Democrats are now perusing a long list of potential candidates ... but none pack the electoral punch that Schweitzer would have," wrote Charlie Cook.
The field of candidates in both parties is still in flux. On the GOP side, former state Senate minority leader Corey Stapleton and state Rep. Champ Edmunds are in the race, but Republicans are also trying to recruit Rep. Steve Daines, who is the state’s at-large representative in Congress.
So far, all the leading Democratic prospects have declined to run. “Suddenly, Republican prospects look much brighter here than they did when the cycle first started,” concludes the Rothenberg Political Report, which now rates the race “Definitely a race to watch – but put a finger on the scale for the GOP."