Baucus To China Upends Montana Senate Race

Charles Dharapak/ap

The nomination of Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) as the next ambassador to China upends the race for the open Senate seat in Montana that Baucus was already vacating with his retirement.

The race for Baucus’ seat has already been well underway, but the early vacancy created when and if Baucus is confirmed as ambassador creates a whole new dynamic in the race. The state’s Democratic governor can appoint a replacement for Baucus and could select the Democrats’ favored candidate for the seat, giving him the clout of semi-incumbency as he tries to win a seat that Democrats are desperate to hold on to.

Upon Baucus’ resignation from the Senate, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) would appoint a replacement, according to Montana law. The election to permanently fill the seat would still occur as scheduled in November 2014. The appointed senator would fill out the remainder of Baucus’s term, according to the Montana secretary of State’s office. According to Montana law:

MCA 13-25-202. Vacancy in office of United States senator. (1) If a vacancy occurs in the office of United States senator, an election to fill the vacancy shall be held at the next general election. If the election is invalid or not held at that time, the election to fill the vacancy shall be held at the next succeeding general election. (2) The governor may make a temporary appointment to fill the vacancy until the election.

This is advantageous for Democrats as recent polling has shown Rep. Steve Daines (MT), the top Republican candidate in the race to succeed Baucus, as the frontrunner among both Republicans and Democratic candidates. Complicating matters for Democrats is the contested Democratic primary between Lt. Gov. John Walsh (D), former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger (D), and Wilsall rancher Dirk Adams. National Democrats, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, prefers Walsh. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has reportedly urged Bohlinger to drop out of the race. Bohlinger has rebuffed the efforts to nudge him out.

Early reports of the fallout of Baucus’s nomination suggested that Bullock was highly likely to pick Walsh. That could quickly end the messy contested primary and warm Montanans up to the idea of a Sen. Walsh at the same time while he seeks election for a full term.

Both Walsh and Bohlinger are staying quiet publicly about who Bullock could pick.

But perhaps tellingly Bob Brigham, Bohlinger’s campaign adviser, is advocating for Bullock to appoint a placeholder.

“My own thinking is that he should not appoint one of these candidates, because that would be like favoring them, for both the June primary, as well as, as the November election next year. I think he ought to appoint somebody who would just be a place holder,” Williams told The Missoulian.

Brigham suggested one possible placeholder: ex-Rep. Pat Williams (D-MT).

“Pat Williams can go back there and, on day one, be as effective as anyone in the chamber,” Brigham told the newspaper. “Then when it comes to the future direction of the Democratic Party, let the voters decide.”

Williams himself told Montana’s MTN News that Bullock should not pick any of the current Senate candidates.

Another possibility for Baucus’s replacement is political operative Jim Messina. On Thursday The Hill reported that Messina, President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign manager and Baucus’s former chief of staff, had also been approached by “high level officials in Montana” about replacing Baucus.