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Independent Voters May Play Pivotal Role in Open Montana Senate Race

by Wendy Innes, published
Of the 35 senate seats

up for grabs in 2014, the one currently held by Max Baucus (D-MT) promises to be a barn burner. Pundits speculate that Republicans have an opportunity to regain control of the Senate and with an open seat for the taking, the Montana Senate race will be highly competitive. Baucus has been tapped by President Obama to be the new U.S. Ambassador to China.

In a statement released in December regarding the appointment, President Obama said:

“For more than two decades Max Baucus has worked to deepen the relationship between the United States and China.  The economic agreements he helped forge have created millions of American jobs and added billions of dollars to our economy, and he’s perfectly suited to build on that progress in his new role.”

Having served in the Senate since 1978, Baucus is the longest serving senator in Montana's history. Considered a moderate, Baucus stands out from other democrats for his absolute support for the rights of gun owners.

Former Governor Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, was a favorite to run, but abandoned the plan last summer. Democratic Lt. Governor John Walsh, a Helena native, entered the race and picked up the endorsements of Sens. Baucus and Tester, as well as Montana Governor Steve Bullock.

Other Democrats who have thrown their hat into the ring are Dirk Adams, a rancher from Wilsall and former Lt. Governor, and John Bohlinger, also a Helena native, who served 8 years under Governor Schweitzer and raised eyebrows last year for comparing the tea party to the Taliban.

On the GOP side, Bozeman native and freshman U.S. Representative Steve Daines is strongly

favored to pick up the seat, despite his low approval ratings. First elected to Congress in 2012, Daines coffers had more than $1.3 million as of September 30. This included money left in his campaign war chest from the 2012 elections. Other Republican candidates include Missoula native and state Rep. Champ Edmunds and David Leaser from Kalispell.

The appointment of Baucus to the post in China gave Democrats some hope of hanging onto the seat. Walsh was almost certainly going to be appointed to finish out Baucus's term. He would then be running in the 2014 election as the incumbent, which could give him an edge. However, it might not since he would then have a voting record to be judged on. Walsh was tainted by scandal in 2010, accused of inappropriately using his authority for personal gain. He maintains his innocence and was never disciplined for it.

It is unclear as to whether or not any independents will toss their hat into the ring, but it seems unlikely.

Money is posing a big challenge for the Republicans, something they've struggled with in several of the past election cycles. On the national level, Democrats have consistently outpaced the GOP when it comes to fundraising. So far in the 2014 cycle, Democrats have raised $48.6 million to the Republicans' $32.6 million. In November, the last month for which figures are available, Democrats outpaced Republicans again $5.1 million to $3.2 million.

Candidates for the open seat began filing their intent with Secretary of State Linda McCulloch on January 9 and filing is open until March 10. The polls give a slight edge to the GOP, but at this point, it's anyone's game.

Photo Credit: Ozier Muhammad / New York Times

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