Walsh ends Senate campaign amid plagiarism scandal

Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.) is dropping his Senate campaign in the wake of a plagiarism scandal, giving Republicans an even bigger edge in the critical open-seat race. 

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"The 2007 research paper from my time at the U.S. Army War College has become a distraction from the debate you expect and deserve. I am ending my campaign so that I can focus on fulfilling the responsibility entrusted to me as your U.S. senator," Walsh said in a statement emailed to supporters. "You deserve someone who will always fight for Montana, and I will."

Walsh was already facing an uphill race against Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), but that path got even harder when The New York Times reported last month that he appeared to have copied lengthy portions of his thesis at the prestigious U.S. Army War College in 2007. 

He had canceled events this week amid widespread rumors that he would end his campaign. Walsh had faced increasing pressure in the state to drop out, with Montana's two largest newspapers calling for him to do so over the weekend.

A former lieutenant governor for the state, Walsh was appointed to the Senate earlier this year to serve out the remainder of former Sen. Max Baucus's (D) term. 

He had already been trailing Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) in the polls before the scandal broke, and a GOP poll released Wednesday found Daines with a 13-point lead.

With Walsh out, Democrats will have to scramble to find a replacement candidate before the Aug. 20 deadline. The party has scheduled a convention for Aug. 16 in Helena, Mont., to pick a new nominee.

"Steve Daines is one of the strongest Senate candidates in the country, was in the process of defeating Sen. Walsh and will defeat whichever Band-aid candidate Democrats can persuade to get in the race," said Brad Dayspring, the National Republican Senatorial Committee's communications director. 

Democrats had already been struggling to find a candidate for the race after Baucus decided to retire, with a number of their top choices, including former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, turning them down. Now, it will be even harder for them to find someone to run.

Some Democrats had reached out to former NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan (D), a former Montana state official, about the race in recent days but she told local newspapers that she wasn't interested in running. Local Democrats said Schweitzer hadn't been answering his phone all week.

Late Thursday evening, Schweitzer publicly ruled out a run.

"Although I'm flattered to be on some of the lists of potential U.S. Senate candidates, I respectfully decline to seek the nomination," he announced on Facebook.

Montana state Rep. Franke Wilmer (D), who lost a House primary in 2012, was mentioned by a few Democrats as a possible candidate, as was Montana state Sen. Dave Wanzenried (D).

EMILY's List President Stephanie Schriock, another Montana native, was also mentioned by a few national Democrats as someone who could raise the money necessary to compete in the race, but she's heavily invested in the organization's 2014 efforts, and sources say she's highly unlikely to leave.

The seat is a likely Republican pickup, and whoever Democrats do get to run might be a sacrificial lamb. Montana Democrats say their goal at this point is to find a candidate who won't hurt the rest of the ticket, because they feel they have a good shot at winning Montana's open House seat with former Baucus staffer John Lewis (D) as their nominee.

"It's a tough spot for whoever takes it," a Montana Democrat said.

Updated at 7:16 p.m.