The Democrats’ Worst Race

Despite thriving in Montana recently, the party has failed to find a viable Senate candidate with just three months left before the election.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer, D-MT, testifies before a Senate Joint Economic Committee Hearing on funding the Iraq War on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 12, 2008. (UPI Photo/Patrick D. McDermott)
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
Aug. 7, 2014, 1:39 p.m.

Sen. John Walsh’s de­cision Thursday to pre­ma­turely end his cam­paign for a full term in the Sen­ate caps an 18-month tumble for Demo­crats in the Montana con­test. The party has been forced to dis­card — de­pend­ing on whom you count — up to three dif­fer­ent can­did­ates and watched its chances of re­tain­ing the red-state seat drop from likely vic­tory to nearly in­ev­it­able de­feat.

It’s hard to re­mem­ber than when the polit­ic­al cycle began, most Demo­crats pegged long­time Sen. Max Baucus as a re­l­at­ively safe bet to win reelec­tion. Of the sev­en red-state seats the party must de­fend this year, Montana’s was con­sidered the least likely to flip.

But Baucus’s un­ex­pec­ted de­cision to re­tire, an­nounced in April of last year, flipped the race on its head and touched off a still-on­go­ing scramble to find a re­place­ment. The pro­cess has been a dis­astrous one for the Demo­crat­ic Party, and left it in the un­en­vi­able po­s­i­tion of ef­fect­ively launch­ing the cam­paign of a new can­did­ate just three months be­fore Novem­ber’s elec­tion.

The Demo­crats had one Hail Mary pass in former Gov. Bri­an Sch­weitzer, whose name ID could would have made him the only truly vi­able can­did­ate in the race. But after Sch­weitzer de­clined to run last sum­mer, most took it as a sign he was wor­ried about the dirt Re­pub­lic­ans had on him. Not to men­tion that con­tro­versy of late has dam­aged his repu­ta­tion as a ser­i­ous politi­cian. Hours after Walsh’s de­cision, Sch­weitzer an­nounced he would not be run­ning for the seat. 

With or without him, the party is in ser­i­ous danger of los­ing a seat it has held for more than 100 years and giv­ing Re­pub­lic­ans a key boost in their ef­forts to re­take the Sen­ate ma­jor­ity. And Demo­crats — who are non­ethe­less con­sid­er­ing a host of pos­sible re­place­ments for Walsh — are left to pon­der how they squandered a race once lean­ing in their fa­vor.

It’s an un­usu­al spot for Montana Demo­crats, who un­like many of their red-state coun­ter­parts have a strong re­cent re­cord of vic­tor­ies. Sen. Jon Test­er won reelec­tion in 2012 along­side Demo­crat­ic Gov. Steve Bul­lock (Walsh was his run­ning mate). Baucus had served since 1979 while win­ning most of his elec­tions with ease, and the state had even spawned an un­usu­ally strong class of Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ives, like former Obama cam­paign man­ager Jim Mess­ina.

In­stead, it’s Re­pub­lic­ans who are do­ing the gloat­ing.

“[Rep.] Steve Daines is one of the strongest Sen­ate can­did­ates in the coun­try, was in the pro­cess of de­feat­ing Sen­at­or Walsh, and will de­feat whichever Band-Aid can­did­ate Demo­crats can per­suade to get in the race,” Brad Dayspring, spokes­man for the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee, said in a state­ment Thursday.

No Sen­ate race has un­der­gone as many trans­form­a­tions in the last year-and-a-half than the Montana con­test. Since Baucus’s an­nounce­ment, Demo­crats have penciled in the pop­u­lar former gov­ernor, Sch­weitzer, to take his place; settled on then-Lt. Gov. Walsh when Sch­weitzer un­ex­pec­tedly bailed on a bid; then cel­eb­rated when Baucus (again un­ex­pec­tedly) be­came the U.S. am­bas­sad­or to China, which let Walsh take his seat in the Sen­ate.

But then the newly christened sen­at­or, already an un­der­dog in his race against the GOP’s Daines, was dealt a cam­paign-end­ing blow when The New York Times re­por­ted last month that he had blatantly pla­gi­ar­ized a thes­is he wrote at the Army War Col­lege. That led to his de­cision Wed­nes­day to drop out, and left Demo­crats look­ing for a new can­did­ate yet again.

The Demo­crats’ his­tory of suc­cess in Montana ex­plained why Demo­crats were ini­tially con­fid­ent about the chances of Baucus and later Sch­weitzer, and why some held out hope that Walsh could make a late charge in the race. There was some lim­ited evid­ence he was do­ing just that last month, be­fore the Times story broke. But the pla­gi­ar­ism scan­dal brought harsh re­bukes from some of the state’s largest news­pa­pers, which called on him to end his Sen­ate cam­paign.

The cri­ti­cism was also start­ing to seep in­to some of the sen­at­or’s Demo­crat­ic al­lies.

“I’m troubled by the pro­pos­i­tion that I need to sup­port a can­did­ate who’s a Demo­crat who has severe de­fi­cien­cies in his judg­ment like that,” Demo­crat­ic state Sen. Dave Wan­zen­ried told Na­tion­al Journ­al be­fore Walsh dropped out the race.

Whomever Demo­crats nom­in­ate to re­place Walsh, they face an un­usu­al, and up­hill, task in pulling to­geth­er a statewide cam­paign in such a short time. It’s a daunt­ing pro­spect, and one that could scare away oth­er­wise cred­ible nom­in­ees — es­pe­cially giv­en Walsh’s struggle to make the race com­pet­it­ive even be­fore the pla­gi­ar­ism scan­dal.

Demo­crats aren’t de­terred, but they are real­ist­ic.

“We only have 90 days to get this cam­paign put to­geth­er,” said John Bo­hlinger, a former lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor who fin­ished a dis­tant second to Walsh in the party’s primary this year. “It would be a scramble, but it could be done.”

Bo­hlinger him­self said he would be in­ter­ested in ac­cept­ing the party’s nom­in­a­tion, but only on the con­di­tion that it guar­an­tee he would have enough money and staffers to run a com­pet­it­ive race.

Up­date: This story has been up­dated to re­flect Bri­an Sch­weitzer’s de­cision not to run in Montana.

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