With a string of declinations from potential candidates, Democrats continue to hunt for a strong recruit for the open Senate seat in Montana — potentially a top-tier race.
At this point, their hopes may rely on the candidacy of Democratic Lt. Gov. John Walsh, a crew-cut former state adjutant general who led hundreds of Montanans into combat in Iraq.
Walsh, 52, hasn’t announced anything yet, but several knowledgeable Democrats in Big Sky Country and on Capitol Hill said he is taking a serious look at the seat. Since taking office in January, Gov. Steve Bullock has often dispatched Walsh to events around the state, party sources said, using his knack for retail, which would also come in handy on the campaign trail.
“He’s got a strong profile, clearly enjoys being out in Montana and campaigning,” said Adam Pimley, a Montana-based Democratic consultant. “He’s a natural at it. He shakes hands like nobody but Brian Schweitzer,” the state’s previous governor.
A year after Democratic Sen. Jon Tester held off a stiff challenge from Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, both parties hope to roll out intriguing prospects for the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Max Baucus. As a top GOP pickup opportunity, the race has significant implications in deciding control of the Senate in the 2014 midterms, when Republicans must net six seats to win the majority.
Democrats believe Walsh, though still new to politics, would instantly plant the race firmly onto the competitive map. A spokesman for the lieutenant governor did not respond to a request for comment.
Republicans have been awaiting a decision from freshman Rep. Steve Daines, whose fundraising prowess and statewide victory in 2012 made him an obvious top recruit for the party. He would start the race with an edge in both name recognition and money. But Montana’s relatively cheap media markets would undoubtedly invite hefty outside spending.
“Daines is absolutely the strongest candidate Republicans have,” Montana-based GOP consultant Chuck Denowh said. “I do expect that he’ll get into the race. I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t.”
Daines has said only that he is seriously considering the race. But the primary field has cleared for him, as all other potential GOP Senate candidates have said they would defer to the congressman. In fact, the primary contest for Daines’ House seat is already crowded.
Democrats point to Walsh’s military résumé as potentially attractive to independents and even some Republicans, which would be vital, especially in an off-year election.
Born and raised in Butte, Walsh served 33 years in the Montana National Guard, finishing his service in 2012 after a four-year run as adjutant general. From late 2004 through 2005, Walsh led Montana’s 163rd Infantry Battalion during combat operations in Iraq. That service earned him a Bronze Star and Combat Infantryman’s badge, according to the biography posted on the governor’s website.
“I just don’t see how you can point at a guy who wore night vision goggles knocking down doors in Fallujah and say that’s a liberal,” a longtime Montana Democratic operative said. “How does Steve Daines do that?”
National Republicans, who were digging deeply into former Gov. Schweitzer’s past before he announced he wasn’t running, have already begun looking into Walsh. For instance, a party operative pointed to an unfavorable audit of the Montana Department of Military Affairs in 2011, then under Walsh’s direction.
“Walsh isn’t a bad candidate and looks great on paper with his military background and that sort of thing,” Denowh said, “but he is pretty green still.”
Walsh has never run statewide at the top of a ticket. His lone campaign experience came in 2012 as a running mate to Bullock, so he’ll undoubtedly need to play catchup in name recognition. But Daines’ first bid for statewide office in 2008 was also as a running mate on the gubernatorial ticket, though Republicans lost.
Baucus would have been favored to win a seventh term, but his retirement put his seat in this Republican-leaning state in jeopardy for Democrats. The senator has made it clear he intends to lend a helping hand to keep the seat in the party. He has already raised money for the state party and contributed to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Still, the potential to hold Baucus’ seat grew more daunting in July when Schweitzer surprisingly turned down a run. Since then, all potential Democratic recruits except Walsh crossed their own names off the list of possible candidates, seemingly leaving the party in the lurch in a state where it’s recently seen consistent statewide success.
As President Barack Obama lost Montana in 2012 by 13.5 points, Tester eked out a 4-point re-election victory and Bullock won by less than 2 points with Walsh as his running mate. Neither eclipsed 50 percent, but the races extended a GOP losing streak — the last time a Republican won either office was 2000.
“I know in Montana when Schweitzer dropped out, a lot of folks were worried about whether we would lose the seat,” Pimley said. “Montana is a weird state. A lot of folks don’t understand how such a red state could have so many Democrats elected statewide.”