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Big Sky’s the Limit

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (L), D-MT, speaks before US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew testimony to Senate Finance Committee on the debt limit in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on October 10, 2013.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
Dec. 19, 2013, 6:45 a.m.

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.

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