Baucus Retirement Creates a Trap for Democrats

Trying to replace the retiring senator with a more liberal candidate could hand the seat to Republicans.

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Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who has been in Washington since 1978, will retire rather than run for re-election in 2014.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who has been in Washington since 1978, will retire rather than run for re-election in 2014.

Progressives and pro-gun control forces might be celebrating the Tuesday announcement by veteran Montana Senator Max Baucus that he won't seek re-election in 2014. But if liberals are hoping to nominate someone further to the left of the sitting Democrat, they might want to take a look at the failings of the Tea Party in the last two election cycles.

Baucus was one of the Democrats who voted against expanding background checks to include Internet and gun show purchases – a tame bit of legislation proponents could still not get past a Senate filibuster. Asked why, Baucus replied that he represents Montana, a state where guns are a central part of the sportsman culture. It was reasonable to think, too, that Baucus was worried about the backlash from the national Rifle Association if he were to vote for even such a small gun control (actually, gun purchase control) bill, given that he was up for re-election next year.

The fact that Baucus is retiring – something he surely knew last week, when the gun vote was taken – indicates that Baucus isn't afraid of the NRA. He was just representing his state, or thought he was.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

So what happens if progressives manage to get someone nominated in Montana who favors tighter restrictions on guns, or even gun sales? Consider what happened to the GOP when Tea Party followers nominated people like Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana. They lost, and by losing those elections, they twice lost what had looked like decent chances to take back control of the Senate.

Yes, 90 percent of the American public wants a more uniform background check for gun sales. And it's understandable that many Americans are upset about last week's vote. But the Senate, by definition, is not representative of the American public at large. Not-very-populous states such as Montana, for example, get as much representation as California. And the filibuster means that even a majority in a non-representative body isn't enough.

Baucus, indeed, was representing his state when he voted against background checks. His state may be a minority, but he sees his job as advocating for that minority. Nominating someone with a more restrictive view of guns just might hand that state over to a Republican.

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