Montana Politics

Dec 18, 2013 11:38 PM by Sanjay Talwani (sanjay@kxlh.com)

Baucus appointment puts Bullock on the spot

HELENA - Montana's political world grappled Wednesday with a sudden twist in the 2014 race for U.S. Senate - numerous news outlets are reporting that longtime U.S. Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) would leave the Senate early for an ambassadorship in China, leaving Gov. Steve Bullock (D) to appoint his successor, well before voters have a chance to pick one next November.

Bullock's most obvious choice would be Lt. Gov. John Walsh (D), whom Bullock has already endorsed for the position. Incumbency could give Walsh a possible advantage in both the Democratic primary and the general election, most likely against U.S. Representative Steve Daines (R-MT).

But it may not be so simple, and appointing Walsh could bring its own set of political liabilities.

Plenty of players in Montana politics had an opinion Wednesday evening - almost everyone, it seemed, except the three men closest to the situation: Baucus, Bullock and Walsh.

Baucus spokeswoman Kathy Weber wouldn't confirm reports of the impending nomination, saying Baucus was only under consideration for the ambassador nomination.

Bullock spokesman Mike Wessler didn't respond to email and telephone inquiries and Aaron Murphy, associated with the Walsh campaign, said it was too early to comment on the process.

But the Montana Republican Party, without specifically mentioning Walsh, warned Bullock against "jumpstarting" anyone's 2014 campaign with the appointment.

Montana GOP executive director Bowen Greenwood called for "an open, transparent and fair process."

"We would be shocked if Governor Bullock didn't chart the same path that (Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Joe Manchin of West Virginia) and others followed when faced with the responsibility of appointing a U.S. Senator. Instead of putting politics first, they appointed a qualified individual who went to serve out the remainder of the term, representing the people of the state rather than focusing on jumpstarting a political campaign," Greenwood said in a statement.

He continued, "It's been reported for weeks that Harry Reid was trying to use back room deals to influence the Democratic Primary here in Montana. We hope Governor Bullock won't try and do the same. Montanans deserve the opportunity to choose their next U.S. Senator, not Washington, D.C."

Daines' office sent out a statement congratulating Baucus for the nomination - even though it hasn't happened yet.

An aide to former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, who has criticized the very "back room deals" cited by Greenwood, suggested Bullock mentioned two Democrats who have no apparent future electoral ambitions: former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams (D) and his wife, former state Sen. Carol Williams.

"Pat Williams the only man in Montana who could be effective on Day One, but his wife Carol could be just as effective and a historic choice for Governor Bullock -- the first woman since Jeanette Rankin," said Bohlinger strategist Bob Brigham.

Rankin (R-MT) was the first woman to serve in the U.S. Congress.

Bohlinger added that there is one person he would not run against: his old boss, former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who was widely seen as a likely front-runner for the Democratic nomination for the seat before his surprise withdrawal from consideration in July.

In any case, it's not certain how much incumbency would help in the general election.

In 1978, for example, after the death of Lee Metcalf, Gov. Tom Judge appointed Paul G. Hatfield to finish Metcalf's term. But he was trounced in the Democratic primary that year - by Max Baucus.

While the U.S. Constitution allows states to fill their vacant Senate seats, the process is not set in stone. This year, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch (D) promoted a bill in the Montana Legislature that would switch that responsibility from the governor to the voters in a special election.

State Sen. Dave Wanzenried, a Democrat, carried the bill, but nearly every other Democratic senator voted against it in its final reading, and it lost on a 25-25 vote.

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