Montana Senate Rating: Move or Reaffirm?

by Stuart Rothenberg July 18, 2013 · 9:17 AM EDT

Since Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., announced he would not seek re-election in late April, we have rated the Montana Senate race as a Pure Tossup — a reflection of our uncertainty about the Democratic candidacy of former Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

Yes, Schweitzer has always seemed ambitious. And yes, he has never passed up an opportunity for self-promotion. But questions about his future business interests caused us to be cautious about the race, so we parked it in the Tossup category.

But now that Schweitzer has announced that he will not run for the Senate, where does the race for Baucus’ open Senate seat belong?

The state’s partisan fundamentals may not be as clear as you think.

While Republicans have held the state’s lone at-large U.S. House seat since Rick Hill won it in 1996, Democrats have won 19 of the past 22 Senate races in the state, a striking record of success. Of course, that streak largely reflects the success of four longtime Democratic politicians — Mike Mansfield, Lee Metcalf, John Melcher and Baucus.

Still, the Democratic record is remarkable, especially because Republican presidential nominees have carried the state in 14 of the past 16 presidential contests. Only Lyndon B. Johnson and Bill Clinton (in 1992) carried the state — and Clinton “won” it with only 37.6 percent of the vote when independent Ross Perot divided the conservative vote.

Most of the current statewide state officers are Democrats (though not the attorney general), and the two parties have held Montana’s governorship for almost equal amounts of time since the end of World War II.

Republicans hold comfortable majorities in both houses of the state legislature, but that was not the case right before the dramatic 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans performed so well nationally in state legislative contests. Before that midterm, Republicans held a razor-thin majority in the Montana House, while Democrats held a razor-thin majority in the Montana Senate.

Finally, the results in 2012 seem instructive.

Mitt Romney beat President Barack Obama by almost 14 points (66,000 votes), a much bigger margin than John McCain’s 2.3-point win in 2008. At the same time, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester won re-election by 18,000 votes and Steve Bullock, a Democrat, won an open-seat race for governor, though by fewer than 8,000 votes. However, Republican Steve Daines easily won the open U.S. House seat by more than 50,000 votes.

Montana is certainly not Utah or Wyoming, but it does have a slight Republican hue when it comes to federal races. A popular, successful Democrat can win in the state, and many have. But a purely generic contest would favor the Republican narrowly.

Without Schweitzer, Democrats don’t have a proven vote-getter whose big personality apparently appealed to a majority of Montanans. They will need to recruit an appealing moderate into the race — not a liberal who says that he or she is a pragmatist and moderate. They’ll need someone with considerable campaign skills and deep Montana roots. And they will need someone who can run away from Obama if he or she needs to.

Some of the candidates mentioned may be able to do that. For others, the road ahead would seem more difficult.

But Republicans can’t afford to take this election for granted. They, too, must nominate a likable, broadly appealing candidate who can tap the state’s Republican and conservative instincts. Daines, the state’s lone congressman, probably fits that profile, but he hasn’t yet announced his plans, and a Republican primary is likely.

On one level, since we have been carrying the Montana Senate race as a Pure Tossup, Schweitzer’s announcement initially benefits the GOP. Democrats have a lot more work to do, and it isn’t clear whether they can find an ideal nominee for the race. Those considerations, given the state’s slight partisan bent, certainly argue in favor of moving the race at least to Tossup/Tilt Republican.

But both the Democratic and Republican nominations are up for grabs, and state voters are a clearly independent lot who evaluate the candidates before deciding how to cast their votes. They split their tickets extensively in 2012 (and 2008), and there is no reason to believe that they won’t thoroughly evaluate the candidates before making their decisions in next year’s Senate race.

While we believe that the 2014 midterms could well favor GOP nominees, especially in states with a Republican bent, the Montana Senate race is only now beginning, and there are too many unanswered questions for us to know which party will have the advantage.

So, while the Schweitzer announcement is good news for the GOP, and a strong Republican nominee should certainly have the advantage, we will wait to see who enters the race before adjusting our rating.