Jockeying for Position in Montana

The Democratic Party leadership has successfully recruited their best contemporary Montana option, with Lt. Gov. John Walsh yesterday announcing his candidacy to replace retiring Sen. Max Baucus (D).

Montana is one of a trio of open Democrat seats, the others being West Virginia and South Dakota, that are must-wins for Republicans; voting trends are favoring the GOP in recent elections, and particularly so in mid-term election years. Therefore, the Democrats fielding a potentially strong candidate in such places becomes an important factor in their plan to hold the Senate majority.

It has been expected since the time former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat commonly viewed as the strongest potential candidate in either party, decided not to run that freshman at-large Rep. Steve Daines (R) would jump into the Senate race. To date, such a move has not happened but most political observers still believe it will.

Daines becomes the early favorite if he does run, and his lengthy decision-making process is the main reason that other candidates have not leapt into the race. It appears that those wanting to run for statewide office are waiting to see what Daines finally does, and then they will announce for either the Senate or House, whichever of the two races becomes the open seat.

Walsh is a former adjutant general in the Montana National Guard who led some 2,000 of the state’s troops to combat duty in Iraq, culminating in him being awarded the Bronze Star. Walsh joined then-Attorney General Steve Bullock (D) on the 2012 gubernatorial ticket, and the two eked out a 49-47 percent victory over their Republican counterparts, former Congressman Rick Hill and state Sen. Jon Sonju.

It is clear the Democrat’s campaign strategy will emphasize Walsh’s military background, hoping to neutralize charges that he is too liberal for Montana. His two-minute plus announcement video (above) is filled with pictures of him in military uniform and on the ground in Iraq. His glaring negative is that he’s never before run for office in his own right. While he has no voting record to attack, he does not have the campaign experience that most people possess when they run for such a high office.

It served Rep. Daines well to hold his political cards close to his vest, as people waited for weeks to see what ex-Gov. Schweitzer would do. When Schweitzer finally said in July that he would not run, the door swung wide open for Daines to jump in and fill the void. Now, more than two months later, the freshman at-large congressman still has yet to pull the trigger and launch his Senate campaign. It appeared the seat was his for the taking, but now he may be in danger of waiting too long. The lieutenant governor’s entry into the race at this point in time suggests that Daines may have, in fact, missed his window, because he has now drawn the Democrats’ best available candidate.

Though Walsh seems to be a prime recruit, he is far from the party’s first choice. As the last available viable Democratic Senate candidate, he became a top recruitment priority, but that was only after Schweitzer, state Auditor Monica Lindeen, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau all declined to run.

Since the time for jockeying has now elapsed, expect Rep. Daines to enter the Senate race soon and assume the favorite’s role. The Republican pressure for him to enter will now greatly intensify, so we will likely see a Daines-Walsh general election pairing in the Senate campaign and a free-for-all in an open at-large House seat.

Expect the eventual campaign to be lively and potentially competitive. The Democrats will fight hard to maintain the seat, hence we can expect some major candidate and outside group campaigning to begin right now.

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