Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, an influential red-state Democrat who helped craft Obamacare but bucked his party last week in voting against expanded background checks for gun sales, will retire in 2014, he announced Tuesday.
The chairman of the influential Senate Finance Committee, Baucus was expected to face a potentially tough race for a seventh term after four decades on Capitol Hill. He becomes the sixth Senate Democrat to announce his retirement, as Republicans look for an opportunity to retake Senate control in the midterm elections.
"Deciding not to run for re-election was an extremely difficult decision," Baucus said in a statement. "After thinking long and hard, I decided I want to focus the next year and a half on serving Montana unconstrained by the demands of a campaign."
The Washington Post had first reported the retirement, citing sources, and said that former Gov. Brian Schweitzer could seek the Democratic nomination.
Baucus was one of only four Democrats to vote against the bipartisan gun bill last week. All are from states that backed Republican Mitt Romney for president, and Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas face re-election next year. The fourth Democrat to vote against the measure, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, is in her first term.
While Montana voted overwhemingly for Romney, it has a history of electing Democrats to statewide seats. Schweitzer, a popular former two-term governor, would likely be a formidable opponent for any Republican. He told the Great Falls Tribune on Tuesday that he would not rule out running.
The state's other senator, Democrat Jon Tester, won re-election last year, and Democrats have won three straight governor's races.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement:
"As Montana's Senior Senator and Chairman of the Finance Committee, Max Baucus has shaped and guided legislation and policy affecting every American, and his service has been a benefit to all Montanans. He has been an invaluable leader in our caucus, and he will be sorely missed. Democrats have had a great deal of electoral success in Montana over the last decade, and I am confident that will continue."
The Washington Post said two "low-profile current and former state legislators" are the only announced Republican candidates, but that should change:
"There is time yet for Republicans to coalesce around a candidate. Look for Rep. Steve Daines (R) — though he has brushed off the idea that he would run — and state Attorney General Tim Fox (R) to be mentioned as potential candidates. 2012 nominee and former congressman Denny Rehberg is another name to watch."
Baucus, who came to the Senate in 1978 after four years in the U.S. House, helped write President Obama's signature health care law. But just last week at a Senate hearing, Baucus said he feared a "train wreck" in implementing some of its provisions. And in a long career representing a conservative state, his record included helping President George W. Bush pass decade-long across-the-board tax cuts.
Baucus also is opposed to a measure the Senate is considering this week to require online retailers to collect state sales taxes. Montana is one of five states without a sales tax.
Along with Baucus, 71, the other Senate Democrats who are retiring are West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller, New Jersey's Frank Lautenberg, Iowa's Tom Harkin, Michigan's Carl Levin and South Dakota's Tim Johnson.
Republicans Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia also have announced plants to retire.