Feb. 6, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Democrats Hope Lt. Gov. Seeks Montana Senate Seat

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Freshman Daines is considered the strongest Republican candidate for the Montana Senate seat Baucus is leaving.

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.

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