Representative Steve Daines of Montana, a Republican, said on Wednesday he would run for the seat of retiring Democratic Senator Max Baucus next year, in a race that could be a factor in determining which party controls the Senate.
The videotaped announcement by Daines of his candidacy comes after Republican leaders urged the freshman congressman, a former Proctor & Gamble executive, to target the Senate seat after former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, backed out of the race.
"Today, after a year as your representative, my concern about the direction of our country has only deepened," Daines said in the short video, posted on his website. He pointed to "wasteful spending" and resistance to President Barack Obama's healthcare law as reasons for his run.
Republicans are seeking to reclaim the majority in the Senate next year, with the race in Montana considered key in a campaign that also targets Democratic incumbents in Alaska, Louisiana and North Carolina.
Daines enters a field in Montana that political observers say was left wide open when Schweitzer announced in July he would not run. National Republican operatives cheered the dropout by Schweitzer, a rancher turned politician who had been strongly favored for a seat traditionally held by Democrats.
Jeffrey Greene, a political science professor at the University of Montana, said pinning hopes on Schweitzer was a misstep by Democrats, who have been scrambling to come up with a surefire candidate.
"He's very well funded, independently well off, and the GOP in and out of the state support him," Greene said of Daines. "Unless the Democrats come up with someone out of the blue who is really, really good, the GOP is favored here."
The strongest contender Montana Democrats have put forward is Lieutenant Governor John Walsh, a former head of the Montana National Guard, but he may face a tough fight against Daines.
Montana Democrats argued that a Republican pickup was slim in an independent-minded state that has some conservative tendencies but is also home to two sitting Democratic senators. Montana has elected only two Republicans to the U.S. Senate since 1913.
Democrats took aim at Daines for initially backing the U.S. government shutdown last month in a bid to derail Obamacare. It took an outcry from constituents to force Daines to back down and vote to end the congressional budget standoff, said John Bacino, chief of strategy for the Montana Democratic Party.
"By cheering the shutdown, Steve Daines telegraphed exactly how out of touch he is and how willing he was to significantly damage the state's economy and put people's livelihoods in jeopardy," Bacino said.
Officials with the National Republican Senatorial Committee said Daines would fight for middle-class Montanans by getting government - like Obamacare - out of their lives. Walsh, the Democratic lieutenant governor, on the other hand, was "hand-picked by liberals in Washington," said Brook Hougesen, committee press secretary.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Leslie Adler)