Five Things to Know About the Newest U.S. Senator

When he arrives, Lt. Gov. John Walsh will have to focus more on his election than on his day job.

A view of the US Capitol on January 27, 2014 in Washington.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
Feb. 7, 2014, 7:10 a.m.

Montana Demo­crat­ic Gov. Steve Bul­lock ap­poin­ted his lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor, John Walsh, to fill the seat of de­part­ing Sen. Max Baucus, who on Thursday was con­firmed as U.S. am­bas­sad­or to China.

Walsh was already run­ning for the Sen­ate to suc­ceed Baucus, and he will be think­ing as much about polit­ics as policy, since he’s fa­cing a tough cam­paign against Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Steve Daines in the fall. Even though he’ll now be the in­cum­bent, he be­gins the con­test as an un­der­dog.

Here are five things to know about John Walsh:

He gives Demo­crats their best chance to re­tain Baucus’s seat. The par­tic­u­lars of Walsh’s bio­graphy should en­cour­age the party: He was born raised in Butte, a small town about an hour south of Helena. He’s spent his adult life in the mil­it­ary, serving in the state’s Na­tion­al Guard for 33 years be­fore be­com­ing its lead­er as ad­jut­ant gen­er­al. His polit­ic­al back­ground is more lim­ited, but what he’s done so far also looks good on pa­per. As Bul­lock’s tick­et mate, he won a close race in 2012 to hold the gov­ernor­ship for the Demo­crat­ic Party.

“John is the kind of guy who may not agree with the party on every single is­sue, but he has the self­less­ness and cour­age to al­ways do what he thinks is right for Montana,” said Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee Chair­man Mi­chael Ben­net in a state­ment.

Re­pub­lic­ans already have their at­tacks against Walsh lined up. Walsh has been dogged in re­cent months by re­ports that in 2010, as ad­jut­ant gen­er­al, he was rep­rim­anded for im­prop­erly en­cour­aging his charges to join a private or­gan­iz­a­tion. Walsh was seek­ing a lead­er­ship po­s­i­tion in the group, which ad­voc­ated on be­half of the Na­tion­al Guard, and he was wor­ried that the Montana Na­tion­al Guard’s low par­ti­cip­a­tion rate would harm his chances, ac­cord­ing to re­ports. The rep­rim­and, writ­ten by the Army’s vice chief of staff, pulled no punches, telling Walsh that his “fail­ure to ad­here to the Army val­ues causes me to ques­tion your abil­ity to lead.” Ex­pect that sen­tence to re­appear fre­quently dur­ing the cam­paign.

If Walsh wins in the fall, he joins a long tra­di­tion of suc­cess­ful Montana Demo­crats. The party has had wide­spread suc­cess in the state des­pite its long his­tory of sup­port­ing Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates. Baucus had held onto his seat since 1978, fel­low Sen. Jon Test­er has won two statewide elec­tions, and Sch­weitzer dom­in­ated the state’s polit­ic­al scene for nearly a dec­ade. The coun­try’s polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment isn’t shap­ing up well for Demo­crats in 2014, but Walsh can lean on a tra­di­tion of vic­tory in Montana.

He im­me­di­ately be­comes a crit­ic­al cog in Demo­crat­ic hopes to hold the Sen­ate. After Baucus re­tired and Sch­weitzer sur­pris­ingly passed on a Sen­ate run, most ana­lysts penciled in Montana as a likely Re­pub­lic­an pickup. Daines is still favored to win there, but Walsh’s ap­point­ment makes his path to vic­tory a little more chal­len­ging. Montana is one of four states — Arkan­sas, South Dakota, and West Vir­gin­ia are the oth­er three — that are close to must-wins if the GOP hopes to take the ma­jor­ity.

Walsh is not the only Montana Demo­crat run­ning for the Sen­ate. The state’s former lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor, John Bo­hlinger, is also seek­ing the party’s nom­in­a­tion, and he says he won’t go down without a fight. Bo­hlinger, a former Re­pub­lic­an, served un­der Sch­weitzer, and the state’s former top Demo­crat hasn’t been shy about com­pli­ment­ing his former No. 2 . (Sch­weitzer has so far stayed neut­ral in the primary.) Any fight on Walsh’s left could be harm­ful to his chances of win­ning.

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