Max Baucus's Sudden Retirement Puts Pressure on Former Montana Governor

It's Schweitzer or bust for Democrats as they hope to hold a pivotal Senate seat.

Rarely has a senator done so much to prepare for reelection only to, in the end, retire instead. But that's what happened with Sen. Max Baucus, and now Democrats are scrambling to recruit the one candidate who can prevent the Montana Senate seat from falling into Republican hands.

Baucus's sudden retirement announcement Tuesday is such a surprise because he had worked so diligently to prepare for reelection — one far from assured given Montana's conservative bent. (As one former campaign hand put it, "Left field? This is out of the bleachers.") The preparation was most evident in his fundraising: The six-term incumbent raised more than $1.5 million in the first three months of 2013, a prodigious total for any lawmaker but especially for one in a relatively inexpensive state for TV advertising. He had almost $5 million cash on hand.

In his votes and rhetoric, Baucus also looked like a lawmaker bent on courting red-state voters. He was one of four Democrats to oppose his colleagues' own budget proposal and the tax increases included in it. He voted against compromise gun-control legislation that expanded background checks despite it attracting the support of four Republican senators. Even two fellow Democrats up for reelection in red states next year — Kay Hagan and Mary Landrieu — backed the measure.

And just last week, Baucus called the implementation of Obama's health care law a "train wreck," even though he helped shepherd the legislation through Congress,  That caused a tizzy among many Senate Republican officials, who speculated the senator was attempting to save his own reelection campaign by performing early damage control on a politically toxic issue.

But even if retirement talk has been off the public's radar, it's been something the senator has been considering, according to one former Baucus aide. A contributing factor, according to the source, was the septuagenarian was not eager to balance legislative fights, fundraisers and another tough reelection battle.

Although the senator's path to reelection was always going to be difficult in a state Mitt Romney won by double digits last year, he didn't appear as endangered as colleagues such as Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Begich in Alaska, and Mark Pryor in Arkansas. He had yet to draw a first-tier challenger — only state Senate Majority Leader Corey Stapleton and state Rep. Champ Edmunds had declared they were running. Just last year, incumbent Sen. Jon Tester won reelection in Montana.

Baucus is the fourth consequential Democratic retirement this year, joining Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. As with those previous retirements, his departure could give Republicans a golden opportunity to win a Senate seat and boost for their hopes of retaking the chamber.

But Democrats have been quick to suggest that former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who left office this year, is interested in running. The popular former statewide official, who doesn't possess a potentially harmful voting record like Baucus has, might even be a stronger candidate than the incumbent.

"Democrats have had a great deal of electoral success in Montana over the last decade, and I am confident that will continue," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet said in a statement. "Democrats built an unprecedented ground game in Montana in 2012 when Senator Tester was reelected, and we will continue to invest all the resources necessary to hold this seat."

Schweitzer, who won reelection as the state's governor in 2008 with more than 60 percent of the vote, fits the model of the kind of candidate Senate Democrats like to recruit — someone who can carve out the necessary independent image for Democrats to win in red states.  He helped elect a Democratic successor, former state Attorney General Steve Bullock, into the governor's mansion last year.

Some Montana Democrats are also floating the name of Stephanie Schriock, the president of EMILY's List and a Montana native. The former chief of staff to Tester doesn't have the ideal background for the red-state race, but she would command a national fundraising base.

Elahe Izadi contributed contributed to this article