BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - Max Baucus launched what could be his last lap around Montana as the state’s senior U.S. Senator on Friday, seeking to shore up his political legacy at home with a vote pending in Washington, D.C. over his nomination to become the next ambassador to China.
Calling the occasion “bittersweet,” the 72-year-old Democrat kicked off his three-day tour with a rally at a car dealership in Billings attended by several dozen supporters and members of the local business community.
Baucus touted his record through six terms in the Senate of delivering money for needs back home, including federal funding for road projects that have spurred commercial development on Billings’ west end.
“We from rural states have to fight a little harder than people from big states,” he said, referring to the greater lobbying clout wielded by cities and states with larger populations. “We are one big small town. It defines us and makes us different than other states.”
Seven additional stops were scheduled across the state through the weekend, culminating with an invitation-only event in Baucus’ hometown of Helena on Sunday.
Each appeared designed to highlight a different facet of Baucus’ four-decade political career: a “rally for jobs” in Butte; a Native American gathering on the Crow Indian Reservation; a “rally for rural Montana” in the small community of Two Dot; an event for veterans in Great Falls; an “outdoor heritage” event in Missoula; and a news conference in the asbestos-plagued town of Libby, whose cause Baucus long championed.
Notably absent was an appearance focused on the broader, politically charged issue of health care under the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act. Baucus gained widespread national recognition - much of it unfavorable - as one of the law’s chief architects in Congress.
Asked Monday if he hoped to distance himself from the contentious law, Baucus said no. “I strongly stand behind ACA. It was the right thing to do,” he said.
Baucus already had announced his plans to retire from the Senate after this year when President Barack Obama nominated him for the ambassadorship last month.
For long-time Baucus supporter Ron Kuneff, a 78-year-old retired state worker, the lawmaker’s impending departure is reason for concern.
Montana’s sole member of the U.S. House, Republican Steve Daines, has said he wants Baucus’ seat. Kuneff said Daines’ fundraising prowess - he announced this week that he has almost $2 million in cash on hand - positions him as a formidable candidate.
“I’m a little worried about what’s going to happen at election time,” Kuneff said.
If the Senate confirms Baucus for the China posting, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock will name an interim successor until voters weigh in this fall.
Bullock’s lieutenant governor, John Walsh, has said he wants the appointment as he seeks to secure the Democratic nomination for the November election. Former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger and political newcomer Dirk Adams of Wilsall also are seeking the party nomination.
Bullock so far has shied away from commenting on who he might pick to fill the seat until January 2015. The Democratic governor’s office repeated on Friday that Bullock will act quickly if and when there is a vacancy.
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