For once this year, the surprise was a good one for Montana Democrats.
The White House's out-of-the-blue decision to name Sen. Max Baucus the next ambassador to China means the state's Democratic governor must appoint a successor long before next year's Senate election. And that will fundamentally change one of 2014's biggest battleground races: Instead of a free-for-all, open-seat battle, Democrats will get to rally behind a better-entrenched incumbent seeking a full term.
It's the rare recent positive development for Montana Democrats. The party's chances of retaining the Senate seat dimmed considerably in the spring when Baucus surprisingly opted against seeking reelection, a loss compounded when former Gov. Brian Schweitzer unexpectedly declined to mount his own campaign, during the summer.
But now, just as the seat seemed to be slipping out of their reach, the race changed in Democrats' favor. They still likely enter the election as underdogs, but their chances suddenly look better.
Politico first reported the Baucus news Thursday. It also reported that Montana's governor, Steve Bullock, would like tap his lieutenant governor, John Walsh, to fill Baucus's seat. That wouldn't be a surprise: Walsh was already running for the Senate, was the favorite of the Democratic establishment, and has personally been praised by Bullock as a strong candidate. In the words of one Montana Democratic insider, "There's no doubt it's going to be Walsh."
The former member of the National Guard — a political neophyte until Bullock named him his running mate in 2012 — was already considered the strongest candidate for the job. But an appointment into the Senate offers a measurable boost to his candidacy, both in terms of name recognition among voters and fundraising.
"When you're just a candidate, there's only so much for the press to cover," said the Montana Democratic strategist. "And there's only so much they have to cover. Your ability to get free media as a senator in a place like Montana is really significant. It's a really big deal for Walsh."
Challenges remain. Schweitzer's decision to pass opened the door for Republican Rep. Steve Daines to run, and the GOP universally regards him as their strongest possible contender. Despite a history of electing Democratic officials statewide, Montana is a deep shade of red for presidential elections, and midterm years are harder still for Democrats. Along with Obamacare's disastrous rollout and the president's own sinking approvals, the fundamentals of the race still tilt solidly toward the GOP.
And taking Baucus's seat will also tarnish Walsh's image as a political outsider. Running against Washington, as Walsh certainly would have done, isn't easy for incumbents, even if Walsh will have been on the job for only a matter of months. "The deal undercuts the lone argument that Democrats have made for John Walsh's candidacy — that he's from outside of Washington with no attachment to President Obama and the Democratic leadership or agenda," said Brad Dayspring, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "That argument is now moot, since Walsh is now Harry Reid and Barack Obama's hand-picked United States senator."
Dayspring called the deal the "Big Sky Buy-Off."
Walsh also had a primary opponent, former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger. Whether Bohlinger would continue a primary campaign after Walsh's appointment is unclear.
Still, Democratic operatives in the state greeted Thursday's news optimistically. It's still an uphill battle, but the climb is now a little easier.
"I think people were realistic about fact that any time a Democrat runs in Montana, it's a hard race," said one Democratic operative. "Nobody was gilding the lily; everybody understood it's tough when Max Baucus ran, it's tough when Jon Tester ran his races.
"But, at the same time, there's a view it's clearly going to help to have Walsh in the driver's seat."