On the Fence

By Beacon Staff

Bob Keenan’s phone has been ringing off the hook. It’s getting so he has to turn it off for hours at a time just to get a little peace.

It began last week when the National Republican Senatorial Committee conducted a poll and found only two Montana Republicans with the name recognition to challenge U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., in the 2008 election: U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., and former Bigfork lawmaker Keenan. Rehberg has already announced he does not plan to run for Senate or governor next year.

Billings Rep. Mike Lange’s campaign against Baucus is underway but his support among fellow Republicans is spotty after a rough legislative session in which he was ousted as majority leader and, apparently, his name didn’t fare too well in the Senatorial Committee poll.

All of which leaves Keenan and his phone deluged by calls from Republicans around the state encouraging him to run, and reporters eager to learn the reality of his feelings toward that prospect.

And Keenan?

“I absolutely don’t know,” Keenan replied when asked by the Beacon. “I doubt that I’m going to run for U.S. Senate, as far as I’m concerned it’s up to the people in D.C. and the Republican party to have more conversations.”

When discussing the idea of challenging Baucus, Keenan does not give the coy responses of a politician whose mind is made up but just hasn’t yet formally declared his candidacy. Keenan sounds genuinely unsure – about putting his wife and five kids through a campaign for national office, about going up against Baucus’s already formidable fundraising machine, and even about the viability of the two party political system.

It’s clear he’s energetic and following national issues, describing himself as “a couch potato watching C-Span,” but some bitterness towards the state GOP seems to linger. In 2006 Keenan launched a last minute campaign against then-incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns. The GOP endorsed Burns and Keenan lost handily in the primary. Keenan said his Burns challenge “raised some eyebrows because of the party loyalty,” but that it was clear to him Burns could not win the general election. The results proved his hunch true.

“It was painful last year to be right,” Keenan said. “In the long run, it’s kind of an ‘I told you so’ situation.”

“There is a sense among Republicans that they’ve let their majority slip away over the last 10 years.”

There exists also the reality that if Republicans can’t field some viable candidates to run halfway competitive races against Baucus and Gov. Brian Schweitzer next year, Democrats can devote all resources to fielding and financing a candidate to unseat Rehberg.

Keenan, 55, has a solid resume: He served 12 years in the state House and Senate, with two years as Senate president and was term-limited out after 2006. The owner of the Bigfork Inn, Keenan received only accolades from Flathead Republicans regarding his possible U.S. Senate bid.

Sen. John Brueggeman, R-Polson, made headlines a few weeks back after remarking that he would support Baucus over Lange in a general election. But if Keenan ran, Brueggeman said, it would be another story.

“He is definitely a strong statewide candidate,” Brueggeman said of Keenan. “If Bob gets involved, you’ll see the RNC (Republican National Committee) take a much closer look at this state.”

Sen. Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell, supports the idea of a Keenan candidacy as well, saying he thinks Keenan might be eager to get back into politics after a year off.

“He’s certainly too talented and too young to not do something,” Barkus said. “He loves the game and he loves politics.”

Keenan speaks animatedly about the Iraq war, healthcare, campaign finance reform and other national issues. He says he is frustrated with the Senate’s recent failure to pass immigration reform and admires independent-minded senators like Joe Lieberman, I-Conn. and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. He also refers to Baucus with phrases resembling the nascent beginnings of a stump speech.

“Baucus’ donor list contains all of the big bad apples of lobbying,” Keenan said. “If people in Montana are happy with what’s going on in Washington D.C. then Max Baucus is eminently qualified to give them more of the same.”

Baucus spokesman Barrett Kaiser said it didn’t make much sense to comment on a Keenan-Baucus race when neither had yet to formally declare candidacy, and that “there would be time to compare records” when the nominee is chosen. But Baucus, according to his most recent campaign finance report, has raised $6.1 million.

So if Keenan is waiting to “have more conversations” with the state and national Republican party, those conversations are likely to center, at least initially, around one topic: fundraising.

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