Strategic Changes Ahead in Montana Senatorial Bid

Reports are rampant that President Obama will soon select retiring Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) to serve as the country’s next ambassador to China. Doing so will bring major change to the impending senatorial political battle to replace him.

Republicans have maintained the early prime position to convert the seat ever since the veteran senator announced that he would not seek election to a seventh term next year. Polling shows freshman Rep. Steve Daines (R-MT-AL) with the inside track toward capturing the open seat over both Lt. Gov. John Walsh (D) and former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger. Since the seat will become vacant upon Baucus’ confirmation as ambassador should he be nominated, Gov. Steve Bullock (D) will have the opportunity to appoint a replacement on an interim basis, and Walsh already appears to be the pick.

While on the surface Walsh’s appointment to the seat would clearly bring certain benefits to his election campaign, it also would tie him down in Washington, like Daines, for the better part of the campaign year and force him to establish a record that could be portrayed negatively. In fact, certain Walsh votes will help the Republicans sell their argument that their opponent is part of the Washington liberal establishment despite what will be his claims to the contrary. Additionally, if President Obama and the Affordable Care Act healthcare law are trending negatively as they are today, then the incumbency ploy may actually prove a net negative for Walsh and the Democrats.

Furthermore, there is another potential negative for Walsh under the appointment plan. Though he is the Democratic establishment’s choice for the party nomination, Walsh is opposed in the primary by former Lt. Gov. Bohlinger, who does have a base constituency within the party. If Walsh is away from the state before the June primary, it certainly would give Bohlinger some uncontested campaign time, and possibly a better opportunity to create a clear contrast between the two regarding who is closer to the Montana electorate.

Naturally, there are many benefits to Walsh becoming a senator before the election, such as giving him equal standing with Daines, more credibility in speaking about issues and crafting an agenda, and being able to use particular votes and committee assignments to develop coalitions that would be more difficult to build from a non-incumbency position.

Sen. Baucus’ appointment as the ambassador to China and subsequent move to name Lt. Gov. Walsh as the interim senator is an interesting play that likely improves the Democrats’ currently weak prospects of retaining the seat in the 2014 election.

Walsh’s assumption of the Senate seat is still weeks away. Sen. Baucus will have to officially be named ambassador, and then his confirmation process would commence. Upon taking the position, Baucus would resign and then Gov. Bullock would have free rein to appoint Walsh.

While today it is unclear what final effect Walsh’s short-term incumbency as Montana’s junior senator will have upon his race with Rep. Daines, there is no doubt that the move will change the campaign paradigm.

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