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November 26, 2014

Freshman Republican Holds the Keys in Montana #MTSEN

Freshman Republican Holds the Keys in Montana #MTSEN

Daines is mulling a Senate bid. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Montana Rep. Steve Daines showed no signs of haste as he trekked from his Cannon office late Wednesday afternoon to the Capitol for a last-minute vote.

So far, the freshman Republican has taken a similarly measured approach to his looming decision about whether to run for the Big Sky State’s open Senate seat, one of the top pickup opportunities for Republicans in 2014.

In an interview with CQ Roll Call, Daines said he hasn’t made a final decision and hasn’t set a timeline to make one.

With the retirement of Democratic Sen. Max Baucus and the decision by Democratic former Gov. Brian Schweitzer to pass on the race, Daines has emerged as a potential Senate frontrunner just six months into his first term in Congress. He may be the GOP’s best hope, and party leaders are encouraging him with donations from top-ranking senators.

“I think they see an opportunity in Montana,” Daines said in an interview. “They’ve been making a few phone calls and writing some checks.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell contributed $10,000 from his leadership PAC on May 17, and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., gave $2,500 in June. More could have poured in following Schweitzer’s July 13 announcement, but it wouldn’t show up on Daines’ fundraising report until October.

Daines said he hasn’t done any polling yet, but he’s keenly aware of where he stands. As he crossed Independence Avenue, Daines accurately rattled off numbers from a recent Public Policy Polling survey.

That June poll showed him ahead of two potential Democratic candidates — state Auditor Monica Lindeen and state schools superintendent Denise Juneau — by double digits. Since that poll, Lindeen has said she won’t run.

“Polls go up, polls go down,” Daines said. “Taking a snapshot at this point in time here, it’s a whole different environment than it might be in 15 months.”

Daines has been hounded about whether he’ll run for several months now. But before he decides, Daines said, he’ll need the approval of his wife and four kids, as well as the million constituents he serves as an at-large House member.

“Do they want to see me move from a House seat and serve in the Senate or not?” Daines said. “Because in Montana, it’s a statewide race either way.”

The congressman briefly ran for Senate last cycle, announcing a challenge to Democratic Sen. Jon Tester just a couple of weeks after the 2010 elections. But he switched to the House race less than three months later when then-Rep. Denny Rehberg jumped into the Senate race.

A similar shuffling of the deck chairs could unfold in 2014 as well if Daines opts for the Senate. State Rep. Champ Edmunds, one of the two Republicans already in the race, has indicated he would defer to Daines. The congressman has a wide fundraising edge over both candidates, with more than half a million dollars in cash on hand.

With Schweitzer out of the picture, other potential Democratic candidates include EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock, Lt. Gov. John Walsh and state Supreme Court Justice Brian Morris.

It’s not just GOP leaders in Washington rooting for a Daines Senate bid, which the party hopes will help break its recent losing streak there. With Tester’s re-election in 2012, a Republican hasn’t won a Senate race in GOP-leaning Montana in more than a dozen years.

“We are certainly hoping he runs, and I think he is definitely the man for the job,” said Errol Galt, a Republican National committeeman from Montana. “Although a freshman congressman, he certainly is a quick learner, he’s done an impressive job there, and I think he’d be an excellent senator.”

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