HELENA – U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., announced Tuesday that he won’t run for re-election in 2014, ending a 40-year career in Congress, including the last 36 years in the U.S. Senate.
Baucus said he agonized for several months over whether to run for a seventh term in the Senate before finally deciding a few days ago not to run again.
“I often rely on Scripture,” the Democratic senator said in an interview. “Ecclesiastes says there is a time and place for everything.”
Baucus, 71, said he spent a great deal of time wrestling with whether to run again, talking with his wife, Mel, and with his son, Zeno, before making the decision.
“It’s an extremely difficult decision,” Baucus said. “This is the most difficult decision I’ve faced.”
Baucus’ decision pulls the plug on a 2014 campaign that had already geared up and had raised $5 million as of March 31.
“I wanted to keep my options,” he said. “I wanted to put a campaign together. It comes to a point where you have to make a decision.”
The announcement creates another open seat for Democrats trying to hold a majority in the U.S. Senate. Recent polls had shown Baucus with a relatively low approval rating, but he did not yet have a well-known opponent.
Two Republicans have announced that they’re running for Baucus’ seat: former state Sen. Corey Stapleton of Billings and state Rep. Champ Edmunds of Missoula.
Baucus’ exit no doubt opens the field to other prospective candidates, Democratic and Republican.
Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, often mentioned as a possible challenger to Baucus in the Democratic primary, said Tuesday morning that he’s not ruling out the possibility of running for the U.S. Senate. However, he said he’s focused now on his fight to help seize control of the Stillwater Mine, which employs 1,700 people in south-central Montana.
“I’ve been focusing solely on saving 1,700 jobs over there at the mine in Nye,” he said.
Baucus also has been a stalwart for the Democratic Party in Montana, often deploying staffers to work on down-ticket races and using his fundraising skills to direct money to the party and Democratic candidates.
Baucus said the death of his mother, Jean Baucus, in December 2011 caused him to think more about his own future.
“I just don’t want to die with my boots on,” Baucus said. “I’m a Montanan. I’m coming home to Montana. It’s my home.”
He will be moving to Bozeman, where he and his wife are having a house built.
“It’s not a retirement decision,” he said. “I will (still) be working very hard for Montana.”
Baucus was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1978 after serving in the U.S. House from the western district for four years and two years in the Montana House of Representatives.
“For 40 years, I’ve had the greatest privilege of my life representing Montana,” he said. “There isn’t anyone luckier than I am.”
Not having to campaign for the next 18 months frees him up to work on issues that are important to him, Baucus said.
“This almost gives me more time, more focus, more energy to focus on what I care about for the state and nation,” he said.
Those issues include addressing the rising national debt, reforming a “dysfunctional” federal tax code and protecting the outdoors, he said.
Baucus said he wants to get a bill passed to protect the North Fork of the Flathead River, the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, a new farm bill and highway bill that make “good sense for Montana.”
He said he wants to work on more trade agreements, which will help create more jobs in Montana and nationally.
Baucus said he also wants to make sure the health care exchanges in the 2010 federal Affordable Care Act, of which he was a major author, are implemented.
And he wants to focus on his economic development summit in Butte this fall. He has the events every three years and invites top officials of major corporations to participate.
“I want it to be the best yet,” he said. “I think Montana’s on the cusp of becoming a strong state (economically).”
As for his legacy, Baucus said that’s up to the people to decide.
“I want people to know how grateful I am to serve Montana,” he said. “I want people to know here’s a guy who’s honest, he’s straightforward, he did his best and also I’d like people to believe this: Each of us when we leave this place, we need to leave it in a better place than we’ve found it.”
Baucus said he’d like to be remembered as “a guy who always did what he thought was right.”
He said he’s especially proud of what he was able to do for the people in Libby, where asbestos from W.R. Grace’s vermiculite mine inflicted scores of people with fatal lung diseases. Baucus said he worked hard to make sure Libby people “got justice after what W.R. Grace did to them.”
Baucus said he believes the Affordable Care Act “is going to be well-appreciated down the road.”
He recalled how as a young congressman, he was visiting with then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, D-Montana.
“I asked Mike Mansfield if you do what’s right, the people will appreciate it,” he said. “Mike said, ‘Yep, but sometimes it takes a long time.’ ”