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Baucus’ Retirement Announcement Top Story of 2013
Here's the year's top stories, according to annual poll of state editors
HELENA – U.S. Sen. Max Baucus' surprise announcement that he will not seek a seventh term in 2014 was Montana's top news story of 2013, according to The Associated Press' annual poll of state editors.

This year's list includes maneuvering ahead of the 2014 elections, the pushback against anonymous campaign funding and the headaches surrounding the nation's health care overhaul. It highlights crime-fighting efforts in Indian Country and in the oil patch, along with notable newsmakers from the football gridiron to the judicial bench.

But Baucus' decision to walk away after 35 years in the Senate was by far the top pick by the editors. On a scale of points ranging from 10 for first place to one for 10th place, Baucus' announcement scored 92 points, compared to the next-highest total, 69 points to the legislative wrangling and problematic rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

Here are Montana's top 10 stories, in order:

1. BAUCUS RETIRES: The Senate Finance Committee chairman's announcement shocked the Montana political world and paved the way for the state's first open Senate election in decades. The Democrat told the AP in April that he made the decision to walk away after 35 years in the Senate because, "I don't want to die here with my boots on." He was nominated by President Barack Obama in December to be the next U.S. ambassador to China, opening speculation as to who Gov. Steve Bullock would appoint to replace him if he departs the Senate before his term is up.

2. HEALTH OVERHAUL: President Barack Obama's signature legislation overhauling the nation's health care ran into snags in Montana early in 2013 when Republican-led legislators rejected expanding the state's Medicaid rolls, a part of the new law the U.S. Supreme Court made optional for states. Legislators also rejected creating a state-run online insurance marketplace for people to buy coverage under the new law, making Montana one of the 36 states in the federal-run insurance exchange that flopped when it went live in October. By the end of November, 1,382 Montana residents had signed up for plans.

3. BARRY BEACH: After less than two years of freedom, the Montana Supreme Court sent Barry Beach back to prison to serve his 100-year sentence for the 1979 murder of a high school classmate on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Beach advocates have long argued that he has been wrongly imprisoned, and a judge in 2011 granted him a new trial. Beach had been living a quiet life in Billings awaiting a new trial when the Supreme Court reversed that decision and ordered him back in custody.

4. TEACHER RAPE CASE: District Judge G. Todd Baugh of Billings landed in hot water in August after saying a high school freshman raped by her teacher appeared "older than her chronological age" and sentenced the man who raped her to a month in prison. The sentence is under appeal and Baugh has acknowledged breaking the judicial ethics code with his comments and actions in the case. Women's groups are calling for Baugh's removal from the bench.

5. DARK MONEY: Even in a non-election year, the anonymous groups that seek to influence state elections continued to dominate headlines. Jonathan Motl, the new commissioner of political practices, said he was expanding an investigation into illegal coordination between candidates and independent groups. A federal appeals court is expected to rule on a lawsuit brought by one such group challenging the constitutionality of the state's campaign contribution limits. A former consultant for that same group, American Tradition Partnership, unsuccessfully sought the return of candidate information he said was stolen from him before it turned up at the commissioner's office. Finally, a state judge fined American Tradition Partnership $260,000 for failing to disclose its spending in the 2008 elections.

6. BAKKEN CRIME: Rising crime rates in the Bakken oil patch of eastern Montana and western North Dakota prompted a crackdown on drug dealers by federal, state and local law enforcement. The crackdown resulted in more than a dozen people being arrested on trafficking and related charges in October.

7. NEWLYWED MURDER TRIAL: A Kalispell woman pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in December after admitting she pushed her husband of eight days off a steep cliff in Glacier National Park in July. Jordan Graham and Cody Johnson had been arguing about her doubts over their new marriage when she pushed him from the ledge, where he fell about 200 feet to his death. Graham faces a maximum sentence of life in prison when she is sentenced in March.

8. DAINES RUNS: Freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines announced his bid for Max Baucus' U.S. Senate seat in 2014, instantly becoming the front-runner for the GOP nomination and leading to several Republicans competing to take Daines' place in the House. On the Democratic side, several high-profile potential candidates said they would not run for the first open Senate seat in decades, including former Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Lt. Gov. John Walsh and former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger finally announced their candidacies for the Democratic nomination.

9. GUARDIANS PROJECT: The U.S. government begins prosecuting more than two dozen people accused of stealing federal money intended for Montana's seven Indian reservations. The prosecutions result from the two-year Guardians Project investigations run by the U.S. attorney's office, the only one of its kind in the nation that seeks to root out corruption and theft in Indian Country.

10. JORDAN JOHNSON ACQUITTED: University of Montana starting quarterback Jordan Johnson is acquitted of charges that he raped a female acquaintance amid an investigation into how the university and the city of Missoula respond to reports of rape and sexual assault. Johnson went on to lead the Grizzlies to a 10-3 record that ended with a loss to Coastal Carolina in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
 
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