Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 10, 2016

The Democratic Escape Plan in Montana

Baucus is retiring. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Baucus is retiring. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Most handicappers have believed for months that Republicans have a good chance to pick up a Montana Senate seat next year. But once again, Democrats have a plan that just may help them hold that seat. It’s a plan that worked in the past, but will it work once again?

According to multiple media reports, President Barack Obama is set to appoint Democratic Sen. Max Baucus as the next ambassador to China. If Baucus is confirmed and vacates his seat, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock will get to appoint his successor until the November 2014 elections.

Baucus had already announced that he wasn’t seeking re-election, and his party looked to have an uphill climb to keep the seat. (Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rates the race as Tossup/Tilt Republican.)

Republicans are likely to nominate Rep. Steve Daines, who has already won statewide. Democrats, on the other hand, looked headed for a primary between Lt. Gov. John Walsh, the establishment favorite, and former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger.

There are multiple possible reasons for a Baucus appointment, but one could be an effort by Democrats to give Walsh a leg up in the primary and general elections as a sitting senator, thereby giving him an opportunity to cultivate an independent image and raise his profile. However, as Roll Call’s Kyle Trygstad reported, Walsh’s appointment is not a sure thing, since it would require the governor to interject himself into a primary fight.

It’s also not clear whether appointing a senator who will then seek a full term would make a difference, but it seems to be a better scenario than the current trajectory of the race for Democrats.

Democrats have pulled off similar escape plans to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat over the past dozen years.

In 2002, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli was running for re-election. But late that September, when it became clear that he would likely lose to Republican Doug Forrester, Torricelli dropped out of the race with just five weeks to go. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that Democrats could replace him on the ballot. And the party held the seat when former Sen. Frank Lautenberg defeated Forrester, 54 percent to 44 percent.

In 2010, Connecticut Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd took a page out of Torricelli’s playbook. When it became clear that Dodd had taken on so much water from his failed presidential campaign and a flurry of ethical questions that he would lose his bid for re-election, the senator dropped out of the race. The timing was different — Dodd exited the race in January of the election year — but the outcome was much the same when state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal went on to hold the seat for Democrats in the fall.

Of course, neither of those examples included a Senate appointment, but both were attempts to salvage a Senate seat. And they were successful.

But when it comes to appointed senators running for election in a competitive state, the sample is too small to draw sweeping conclusions.

Republicans Roger Wicker of Mississippi, John Barrasso of Wyoming, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Democrats Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York were appointed and subsequently elected in their own right. But each matched the partisan lean of his or her state in federal races.

In terms of competitive states, Democrat Michael Bennet was appointed to the Senate from Colorado in Jan. 2009. He was elected nearly two years later, 48 percent to 46 percent, over polarizing GOP nominee Ken Buck. A stronger Republican nominee might well have defeated Bennet given the strong Republican partisan wave that was apparent nationally. Bennet had never held elective office before. His campaign manager, Guy Cecil, runs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee now.

Republican Dean Heller was appointed to the Senate from Nevada in May 2011. He was elected 18 months later, 46 percent to 45 percent, over Rep. Shelley Berkley. Heller had previously represented a third of state in the House, as had Berkley.

Democrat Jean Carnahan was appointed to the Senate from Missouri in January 2001, after the death of her husband. She lost election nearly two years later, 50 percent to 49 percent, to Republican Jim Talent. Carnahan had never held elective office before, but her late husband was a statewide official for many years.

There is obviously no guarantee that Walsh will win in 2014 if he is appointed to fill the remainder of Baucus’ term. But some Democrats clearly feel that they need to shake up the contours of the Montana Senate race to improve their prospects, and appointing someone who can introduce himself to voters now and then seek a full term at least does that.

  • Spiro Agnew

    Carnahan was appointed after her husband died in 2000, not 2011.

  • southerndemnut

    Most people do not realize that Conrad Burns has been the only Republican to win a Senate seat in Montana since Zales Ecton won one term in 1946. That doesn’t account for much in predicting a race today, but right most major statewide offices are held by Democrats. A Walsh appointment would give him an ever so slight boost and probably taking this race from Tossup/Tilt Republican to Pure Tossup.

    • Scientist5

      As an ex-Montanan you are absolutely right. Only I’d add it may assure a Demo victory. Western Montana will likely put a Demo in on this basis.

  • jrconner

    I blog in MT.

    MT Governor Steve Bullock endorsed Walsh on 15 November. Here’s Walsh’s press release:

    HELENA, Mont. — Montana Lieutenant Governor and U.S. Senate candidate John Walsh today picked up a key endorsement from Montana’s chief executive.

    Governor Steve Bullock announced in Helena that he supports John Walsh, saying Walsh “will be great leader in the U.S. Senate.”

    Bullock released the following statement after Walsh announced his U.S. Senate campaign in October:

    “For his entire life, John has put this country and our state first and his commitment to public service is inspiring. I asked John to join me as Lieutenant Governor because of his personal character, his integrity and leadership abilities. These same qualities will make John a great U.S. Senator.

    “Working together, John and I have been able to do what Washington can’t: We’ve balanced a budget, created jobs, cut taxes and made historic investments in education. In the Senate, John will put politics aside and get things done.”

    Walsh is a 33-year veteran of the Montana National Guard. He retired as Adjutant General of the Guard in 2012 to join Bullocks’ successful campaign for Governor.

    • nathanlgonzales

      Thank you James. I had forgotten about this release.

  • HallandaleBeachBlog

    Another case involving appointments to the U.S. Senate that also highlights the problem of perhaps playing-the-angles a bit too much was the one that took place in Minnesota in late 1976 that the then-15-year old me observed from afar in South Florida, and which has always stayed with me all these years. Especially the consequences!

    There, popular, still-boyish-looking Minn. Gov. Wendell Anderson decided to resign his office so that he would be appointed to the remaining two years of the Senate seat of newly-elected Vice President Walter Mondale by Lt. Gov.-turned-Governor Rudy Perpich, who would also get two years to show what he could do before actually facing voters.

    That effort blew-up in both their faces in 1978 when Minnesota voters turned Anderson and Perpich out of an office that neither had been elected to, by Rudy Boschwitz and Al Quie respectively, though Perpich was later elected governor multiple times and served longer than anyone else.

    This piece neatly sums up much of the political environment at the time and the too-cute-by-half thinking that backfired throughout the state:


    • Rob_Chapman

      Thanks for the comment Hall that was my reaction when I first heaed this too.

  • Scientist5

    I was a Montana resident when Backus was first elected to the US Senate. I add that I actively campaign against him. This is another example of “no business experience”, and ” very little real world experience”. So, this qualifies him to be Ambassador to China – our dealings with China are critically important to the uS on many levels. Obama chose him for one reason alone – to make it possible for the Demo Governor to appoint a Democrat.
    God help the USA – we Americans are at the mercy of a bunch of dumbos and ner do wells.

    • Rob_Chapman

      Thanks for the comment, Sci.

      It is a good thing your neighbors outvoted you. Baucus has been a very creditable Senator and finance chair.

      The problem with the US government is the GOP which has institutionalized federal deficits for ideological reasons.

      Baucus is an unknown as a diplomat, but he will have a good staff and his Senate record shows he knows how to use staff to the best advantage.

      Baucus decades of work at the highest echelons in Washington give a particularly potent and a unique skill set and qualifications for the job he will be carrying out in Beijing.

      But still, it might be too bad that Baucus can’t add offshoring US jobs to China to his CV.

  • One Thirsty Bear

    Fun fact: The last US Government budget bill passed the Senate on April 29, 2009. Since then, Senate democrats have obstructed every single budget passed by the House.

  • Socialism is Evil. Organized.

    The “big idea” of Marxism is the notion that a self-proclaimed group of the uber-enlightened are somehow magically entitled to consciously direct the future of mankind.

  • JayfromBrooklyn

    Daines is ahead by 15%. It’s fun for the media to have what to talk about, but the democrat appointed will not win the election.

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