Max Baucus exit to China could help Democrats keep Senate

A Max Baucus nomination to be US ambassador to China would set up a chain of events that could give Democrats an unexpected boost in two states they risk losing: Montana and Louisiana.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, seen here at an April 17 oversight hearing of the Finance Committee that he chairs, is reportedly about to be nominated to be the next US ambassador to China.

President Obama’s expected nomination of Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana to be the next ambassador to China comes with a side dish of election benefits for the Democrats: It could help them retain control of the Senate next year – not a given by any means.

Ambassadorships are not just about diplomacy, they’re also highly political. Presidents often hand them out to political supporters as rewards. In this case, the move could help Democrats retain two vulnerable Senate seats: Montana and also Louisiana, where Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) faces stiff competition from Republicans.

Republicans need only a net of six seats to retake the Senate. “Their path to the majority is narrow,” says Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report. “They don’t need any setbacks, they need breaks,” she says, adding that Republicans had already been counting on Montana as a win.

Here’s how the China-Montana-Louisiana connection could work:

Senator Baucus had already announced that he would retire next year, but moving up that calendar by several months could enormously help the Democrat who is seeking to take his place, Montana Lt. Gov. John Walsh

Under state law, Montana’s Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock can appoint Mr. Walsh to fill the vacancy left by Baucus’s early departure. That could give Walsh a big leg up in a state that Mr. Obama lost to Mitt Romney by 13 points. Even a few months sitting in Baucus's chair would raise his profile back home and in Washington. As an incumbent, he would already have a Senate staff, be making headlines, and tapping into the fundraising vats in Washington.

The early departure of Baucus to Beijing would also help Senator Landrieu land a powerful Senate committee chairmanship that’s of central concern to her state. When Baucus leaves the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee, he’s likely to be replaced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon. That would create a vacancy in the chairmanship of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, with Landrieu next in line.

And guess what? Louisiana is a big energy state – one of the largest oil and gas refining and producing states in the country. Landrieu’s support for Obamacare and background checks for gun buyers make her a soft target for Republicans, but with this chairmanship, she could more easily sell herself as a senior senator running a committee that can deliver on oil and gas issues – and raise campaign funds from the oil and gas industry.

As energy chairwoman, Landrieu would be better able to realize her goal to share more revenue from offshore drilling with coastal states – though she would have to sell the Senate on that. She and the top Republican on the committee, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, see eye-to-eye on many energy issues and could become a powerful duo, for instance, by pushing to ease restrictions on natural gas exports.

Of course, there are no guarantees in elections. In the case of Walsh, running as an incumbent can have its downsides – mistakes, as well as successes, get amplified, and inexperience helps breed mistakes. And Landrieu is already running as if she’s going to get the chairmanship, so the actuality of it may help her only incrementally. “Is it as good as winning the lottery? No. But it helps,” says Ms. Duffy.

Democrats still have a heavy lift to retain the Senate in next year’s midterm election. But the Beijing boost may make that lift a little lighter.

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