Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) shocked Washington Tuesday by announcing he will not seek a seventh term in the Senate.
Baucus’s decision to retire complicates his party’s hopes of holding the Senate majority, leaving Democrats with six open seats to defend, though they likely will have an edge in Montana if former Gov. Brian Schweitzer decides to run.
The popular Montana Democrat told The Hill on Tuesday he would consider the race.
Most observers expected Baucus to run for reelection, given the size of his campaign war chest and his recent voting record.
Baucus, 71, raised $1.5 million this year and has nearly $5 million on hand.
He voted against the White House last week on expanding background checks for gun purchases, and earlier this year he voted against his own party’s budget.
In both cases he was joined by a handful of senators running tight races for reelection next year.
Baucus’s panel approved President Obama’s healthcare law, and he irritated liberals at the time by spending months trying to win GOP support. He also made himself politically vulnerable because his work on ObamaCare damaged his independent brand in Montana and hurt his poll numbers.
Baucus made headlines last week by saying he feared a “train wreck” as the law was implemented.
“I just see a huge train wreck coming down,” Baucus told Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Wednesday in comments that were mocked by Republicans.
If Schweitzer runs, he could be a stronger candidate than Baucus.
A February survey from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found he had a 56 percent approval rating statewide, 11 points higher than Baucus’s, and he led a number of potential Republican candidates who polls showed running neck and neck with Baucus.
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a prominent liberal advocacy group that last week criticized Baucus over his vote on the gun bill, helped launch a “Draft Schweitzer” campaign on Tuesday.
If Schweitzer passes on a bid, Democrats could have a problem in a state Republican Mitt Romney carried in the 2012 presidential election by 14 points.
Democrats in the state mentioned EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock and former NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan as possible candidates if Schweitzer doesn’t run.
Two Republicans, former state Sen. Corey Stapleton and state Rep. Champ Edmunds, are already in the race. Other possible GOP candidates include Rep. Steve Daines, who says he’s giving it “serious and thoughtful consideration.”
Former Rep. Rick Hill (R-Mont.) and former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot (R) are also possible candidates.
Schweitzer told The Hill on Tuesday he wouldn’t rule anything in or out.
“I’m the kind of guy that when I see a broke-down pickup I’ll get out with my tools and try to fix it, and I can tell you looking at Washington, D.C., from Montana, there is no bigger broke-down pickup than the Senate in Washington, D.C.,” Schweitzer said.
Republicans must win six seats in 2014 to take back the Senate majority.
Besides Montana, they see possible victories in West Virginia and South Dakota, two open seats in states Romney easily won.
Democrats will also be defending open seats in Iowa, Michigan and New Jersey, where the playing field is better for the party.
Vulnerable Democrats are seeking reelection in Alaska, Louisiana, North Carolina and Arkansas.
There are no sitting Republican seats that look to be in danger at this time, and Republicans crowed Tuesday at their good fortune.
“The 2014 electoral map is in free-fall for Democrats, who were already facing a daunting challenge,” said Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, cited Sen. Jon Tester’s (D-Mont.) reelection in 2012 as evidence the party has a strong chance of holding Baucus’s seat.
“Democrats have had a great deal of electoral success in Montana over the last decade, and I am confident that will continue,” Bennet said. “Democrats built an unprecedented ground game in Montana in 2012 when Sen. Tester was reelected, and we will continue to invest all the resources necessary to hold this seat.”
Baucus received two standing ovations at Tuesday’s Senate Democratic luncheon, according to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Still, his reputation in the Senate was for his independence: He is sometimes referred to as “Max Baucus, one-man caucus.”
First elected to the Senate in 1978, Baucus has been the Finance Committee chairman since 2001, and he irked his party by supporting President Bush’s tax cuts in 2001 and his new Medicare prescription drug benefit in 2003.
Battles continued this year as Baucus opposed the decision to eliminate tax breaks in the Democratic budget partly because it would have limited their use in tax reform.
This week he was angered by Reid’s decision to bring an online sales tax bill directly to the Senate floor for a vote rather than allowing it to take the normal path through his committee.
—Erik Wasson, Daniel Strauss and Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.
— Updated at 8:47 a.m.