On Wednesday, the Montana Senate race changed dramatically for the third time. Max Baucus's sudden retirement from the Senate and former Gov. Brian Schweitzer's (D) surprise decision to pass on the race shifted what looked like a solid Democratic seat firmly into the GOP camp. Now, with Baucus headed to China before his term is up, Democrats will get to rally behind his appointed replacement, an incumbent seeking election.
-- It would count as a shock if Gov. Steve Bullock (D) didn't tap his lieutenant governor, John Walsh (D), for the post. He was already the Democratic frontrunner for the seat, and Bullock has been bullish about his prospects. Others, including Walsh's primary opponent, former Lt. Gov. John Bollinger (D), are calling on the governor to appoint a caretaker, but doing so might cost his party its best (and maybe only) chance of winning next year's race.
-- Walsh's advantages would be numerous: As an incumbent, his name ID and fundraising could surge. His voting record would be closely scrutinized, but a few months on the job would offer Big Sky voters a chance to see Senator Walsh in action. Barring a major mistake, the time could be invaluable as he states his case in November.
-- He would, however, have to find a new rationale for running -- so far he's positioned himself as an outsider against freshman Rep. Steve Daines (R), and that doesn't work so well when you're already serving in the Senate. And Republicans say appointing Walsh to the seat unilaterally will leave a bad taste in the mouths of voters, a controversy they will hope hangs over his entire campaign. The NRSC has already tagged the upcoming appointment as the "Big Sky Buy-Off."
Walsh will also have to see whether Bohlinger bows out of the race. But make no mistake, Baucus's exit is good news for Democrats. They don't enter as a favorite by any means, but the race suddenly looks a lot more like a toss-up than just a day ago.