As Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) moves toward a quick confirmation as U.S. ambassador to China, the early vacancy has Democrats more hopeful about their chances to hold the Senate seat they feared was lost.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) has kept quiet about whom he will name after Baucus is likely confirmed next month, but most expect he’ll pick his lieutenant governor, John Walsh (D), whom Bullock has already endorsed in his race for the open seat.
“It’d have huge consequences on the race. It’d give John Walsh an opportunity to raise his profile and introduce himself to Montanans as their U.S. senator,” said one Washington-based Democratic strategist with Montana ties. “[It] gives him a huge platform and helps him raise the resources to be competitive.”
Similar appointments helped Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) raise the money they needed to win competitive elections for a full term and introduce themselves across their states.
Though Walsh faces a primary against former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger (D), he already has the backing of national Democrats, who tout him as a top recruit.
Keeping the seat is critical for Democrats, given their daunting Senate map. Republicans only need to pick up six seats to win control and Democrats are defending a number of seats in states that favor Republicans. A trio of retirements in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia once looked like sure losses, but if Democrats can salvage this seat, it would ease the pressure to win in other GOP-leaning states.
But a Walsh appointment hardly makes him the favorite. He would still likely face an uphill campaign against the well-funded Daines even if he gets some of the temporary benefits that come with incumbency. The Democrat has had a rough spell on the campaign trail because of questions about whether he abused his position as head of the Montana National Guard.
Meanwhile, Daines has united Republicans behind his candidacy and is raising big bucks, announcing last week that he’d hauled in $1 million since he entered the race in November with $1.9 million still in the bank.
In a telltale sign, Walsh has yet to release his fourth-quarter fundraising figures — candidates often wait until the last minute to put out less-than-impressive numbers, and Friday is the reporting deadline.
President Obama, who got 42 percent of Montana’s vote in 2012, remains very unpopular. According to new data released by Gallup, his approval rating is 33 percent there, his seventh-worst state.
Bullock has kept quiet about the appointment, and Baucus said during his Tuesday confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he hadn’t talked to Bullock about whom he’ll pick for the seat. Bullock’s close allies in the state say they haven’t been looped in on what he’s thinking, either.
“The governor has said that he’s not going to comment until there’s an actual vacancy other than to say that if one presents itself he will move quickly,” Bullock spokesman Kevin O’Brien said.
“The governor is keeping it pretty close to the vest,” Montana Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy Anderson said. “It’s been really quiet. … Gov. Bullock is not going to do anything until the confirmation process is complete and the senator resigns.”
Bullock could choose someone other than Walsh — Bohlinger, many Republicans and a handful of newspaper editorial boards have called for a caretaker who promises not to run, such as former Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.). But most expect Walsh will be the pick, and Bohlinger has even said he may drop out if Walsh is tapped.
Walsh hasn’t shied away from admitting he wants the appointment.
“Lt. Gov. Walsh has expressed his interest in being appointed to the Senate should Sen. Baucus be confirmed,” his spokeswoman Lauren Smith said. “He has confidence the governor will make the decision that is best for Montanans and the country.”
Montana Republicans admit a Walsh appointment could help him with fundraising and name recognition. But they argue the way the appointment process has been handled could hurt him.
“An appointment will undoubtedly help Walsh in terms of fundraising and name identification, but the entire process has looked so scripted that it may very well end up backfiring on him,” said Erik Iverson, a former Montana Republican Party chairman and senior adviser on Rep. Denny Rehberg’s (R-Mont.) 2012 Senate campaign.
“Montanans are generally suspicious of anything that smells like a backroom, top-down deal, and that’s exactly what this looks and feels like,” Iverson added. “Bullock, Walsh and the party bosses in D.C. are being too cute by half on this one, and it may ultimately blow up in their face in November.”
Republicans also point out that the last two appointed senators in Montana lost their races, though both ran more than three decades ago. The only appointed senator to lose her first race since 2000 is Sen. Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.). Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) all won their races after they were appointed, though under less competitive circumstances than Bennet or Heller.
Daines has avoided weighing in on Bullock’s process. Daines spokeswoman Alee Lockman would only say that the governor had a “very important decision to make and we’re hopeful he’ll make one that’s in the best interest of Montana voters.”
Still, Walsh may need the appointment to give Daines a tough run. Polls late last year showed the Republican opening up a comfortable double-digit lead, and Walsh has endured a recent spate of bad press.
A former head of the Montana National Guard, he has faced increased scrutiny over a 2010 Army report accusing him of using his position to pressure lower-ranking soldiers into supporting an organization that advocates for better equipment for National Guardsmen. Walsh did not receive a promotion to general because of the report.
The lieutenant governor held an emergency press conference Sunday to release all of his military records and defend his actions.
“I believed in what the association did on behalf of the men and women of the National Guard. I’m not going to apologize for what I did for the men and women of the National Guard, he told reporters this weekend. “Do I believe that what I did to support the National Guard was wrong? I do not.”
Republicans have been on the attack over the report, as well as other questions about Walsh’s record and his reluctance to talks to reporters.
“John Walsh would bring tremendous baggage to the Senate, and it’s hard to believe Democrats in Washington would want to expose a man who avoids the media at all costs,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring said.
“John Walsh has been named a defendant in multiple lawsuits, has a disastrous management record, and some of the top military officials in America have openly questioned his ability to lead.”
Democrats fired back, attacking Daines’s business career.
“There is a pretty clear contrast between John Walsh’s time serving Montana and the nation in the National Guard and Steve Daines opening factories in China,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Canter said.