Former Montana Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger's surprise announcement last week that he's running for Senate may have set off a rare event: a contested Democratic Senate primary.
Bohlinger will face off against current Lt. Gov. John Walsh, who already has the support of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which often heads off challenges to its preferred candidates. But a strong challenge to Walsh isn't automatic, even though his and Bohlinger's resumes include the same top entry.
Without parsing cause and effect, Walsh has put together a network of supporters alongside the DSCC, including both of the Treasure State's sitting senators and some of the staff that guided Sen. Jon Tester's reelection bid in 2012, who have been helping Walsh navigate his first time as a standalone candidate and connect with donors to fund his campaign. Gov. Steve Bullock, who plucked Walsh from the Montana National Guard to be his running mate in 2012, touted him earlier this year when asked about the open Senate seat, though he said then he wasn't pushing Walsh one way or the other. Though Bohlinger has a long track record in state government, first as a GOP legislator and then as former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer's two-time running mate, it's not clear who stands ready to help Bohlinger make his first solo statewide run, a major obstacle for the bow-tied politician.
Unlike its Republican counterpart, the DSCC picks sides in battleground-state primaries with some frequency, and its chosen candidates almost always capture the Democratic nomination. 2010 North Carolina nominee Elaine Marshall was a rare exception, as was party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who also lost a primary for his new party's nod in that tumultuous year. For the most part, though, DSCC-backed candidates advance to their general elections, and they have often dissuaded other viable candidates from running at all. The main Democratic Senate candidates in two states the party is targeting, Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky and Michelle Nunn in Georgia, have only little-known opponents standing between them and their Democratic nominations.
Bohlinger is spending his early days as a candidate advancing an outsider case against Walsh, criticizing the DSCC and other forces for meddling in local politics by anointing his replacement in state government. "I think its inappropriate for the DSCC or the paid staff of the Montana Democratic Party to involve themselves in primaries," Bohlinger said. (Asked to clarify, he said he didn't know who at the state party was supporting Walsh.) "I think the people of Montana should make the choice, not political operatives." Bohlinger told KXLH-TV in Helena that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently called him and asked him to exit the race and spare Walsh a primary ahead of an expected matchup with GOP Rep. Steve Daines, a call Bohlinger defied.
But outsiders still need supporters, and it's unclear which Democrats have stepped forward for Bohlinger (though his campaign is in its early stages). Walsh has put together a team of campaign staffers and supporters that include both sitting Montana senators. It's not clear who Bohlinger has in his corner, partly because he won't say so himself. Asked specifically who is supporting him, Bohlinger replied: "It's the people of Montana."
"I honestly don't know that," said Montana AFL-CIO executive secretary Al Ekblad, a close observer of the coming Senate race, on who might be supporting Bohlinger. "I'm aware of some of the people that he's talked to, but I haven't seen anything that tells me there are heavy hitters lined up to support that race. ... I don't like the word establishment. But a lot of people have made the decision to back John Walsh. I don't know if lots have made the decision to back John Bohlinger."
There is one answer to that question that some deem obvious, but the truth may be more complicated. Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who plucked Bohlinger from the ranks of moderate Republican state senators to be his running mate in 2004, may be Bohlinger's closest ally in state politics after eight years as a team. Bohlinger says that Schweitzer gave his former LG their old 2004 and 2008 campaign donor lists and "pledged me a nice contribution" for his Senate run.
But the ex-governor -- whose shadow has hung over the Senate race since Baucus announced his retirement, and who nearly pulled the trigger on a bid himself before declining this summer -- is adamant that he's staying not picking sides, despite professed admiration for Bohlinger. Walsh was also a member of Schweitzer's government, though not in an elected role: Schweitzer picked Walsh to head the state's National Guard.
"I want to make sure it's known: I think the world of both, I selected them both" for their old jobs, Schweitzer said. "At the end of the day I'll probably be a large donor to both of them," he added.
Walsh supporters privately believe Bohlinger won't be able to put up much of a fight for the Democratic nomination, citing Walsh's early support and likely financial advanatage as well as Bohlinger's past as a Republican legislator. Other observers without a side in the primary think both candidates have potential, though Walsh has a major organizational advantage that could eventually prove decisive. Schweitzer, interestingly, echoed some of Walsh's recent comments when asked about his old running mate -- while stressing repeatedly that he's not taking sides.
"Don't listen to the bulls--- you hear in Washington, D.C.," Schweitzer said. "If the [primary] election were held today, John Bohlinger would win 2-to-1 over John Walsh. He's not going to raise the money Walsh is because D.C. has selected Walsh as their candidate. ... But the election isn't right now, it's next year, and the Democratic Senate machine in Washington, D.C. has their sights set on John Walsh, so he'll have a lot more money than John Bohlinger."
That's as close as a high-profile Montana Democrat has come to publicly touting Bohlinger's candidacy, besides Bohlinger himself.
"There is not anybody in the state of Montana that doesn't respect John Bohlinger and won't take a meeting when he comes to talk to you," says Ekblad.
Whether those talks will translate to primary support, though, is a still-unanswered question.