The political race most likely to get the most attention in Montana this year will be the race for the Montana Senate Seat currently held (at least at this point) by Senator Max Baucus. Baucus announced in 2013 that he was not going to seek re-election in 2014 (the speculated reasons behind that decision vary widely but at this point, it is moot) and this puts the Montana Senate seat in play. This year will be a good chance for the Montana Republicans to take the seat. The Republicans haven’t had a Senate seat since Jon Tester defeated Conrad Burns in 2006.
The Race, as it stands now, is very much in play. Montana’s lone Representative, Steve Daines, has announced that he is running for the seat. Also on the Republican side, Champ Edmunds has also announced a run at the seat. For the Democrats, Lt Governor, John Walsh announced first that he was running and in a somewhat surprise move, former Lt Governor John Bohlinger entered the race. Bohlinger has more name recognition than Lt Governor Walsh (a relative newcomer to Montana Politics) but Bohlinger is also 77 years old and many question his ability to run with the younger candidates – John Walsh is 53 years old and Steve Daines is 51.
The latest polls for the race show Steve Daines with a very comfortable lead - over either Democratic Candidate – a 15 point lead over Bohlinger and a 17 point lead over Walsh. He is also the presumptive leader in the Primary battle against Champ Edmunds. Most political pundits are already calling this race presumptively a win for the Republicans.
There are some twists to this race, though and they must be considered.
1) It was recently announced that Senator Baucus has been tapped by the administration to become the Chinese Ambassador. No one seems to have a timeline for this appointment but it will likely be sooner rather than later (assuming that the Senate will confirm Senator Baucus to the position). When this occurs, Montana Governor Bullock will be in the position to do one of two things – appoint a temporary replacement for Senator Baucus, or hold a special election for that seat. If he appoints Lt Gov Walsh to the position, this will give Walsh two things he currently doesn’t have at this point – name recognition with the majority of Montana, and a chance to influence both the primary race against Bohlinger and a chance to gain ground on Daines by working in the actual Senate. Bohlinger has already burned that bridge by coming out early in his campaign criticizing the Governor about not calling a special session of the Montana Legislature to discuss expanding Medicare in Montana. Bohlinger is currently calling on Gov. Bullock to choose a neutral politician to the empty seat instead of Walsh (for obvious reasons). Walsh has already announced that he would like to be considered for the open seat.
2) A recent story surfaced about an Army investigation into (then) General Walsh’s activities relating to the National Guard Association of the United States - a privately funded support and aid group to those enlisted in the National Guard. The report states that Walsh improperly used his position to solicited membership for the group and contends that Walsh intimidated members of his command into joining. This finding occurred in 2010 before Walsh retired and ran for the Lt Governor seat. How this issue will effect Walsh’s candidacy remains to be seen. Many on the left are saying that this issue is a minor one and won’t have any impact. I am not convinced. This is not a rumor or misconstrued news report. This was an official investigation done by the Inspector General of the US Army. I am positive that Walsh’s opponents will make a BIG deal about this report – in fact, many already are.
My take on this -
1) Unless something changes radically between now and November, we will be sending Steve Daines to Washington as our Junior Senator. Now… A lot can happen between now and November. I do not believe that Champ Edmunds is a serious primary threat to Daines and this will allow Daines to focus the majority of his money and time to the General Election. It is my opinion that Bohlinger overplayed his hand too soon and is now seen by a lot of people as whiney and opportunistic. Further, there are a lot of questions about his stances on Democratic issues given that Bohlinger has been a Republican his entire political career. The major thing Bohlinger has going for him is his name recognition. I would also give Bohlinger a nod as better at using social media and the press than either Daines or Walsh. It won’t help him much, though. At the end of the day, Daines doesn’t have to engage Bohlinger. He can run a silent campaign and walk away with the win.
2) Walsh is the wild card. While being a relatively new person on the Political scene, he comes with bonuses for most Montanans. He was a General in the National Guard and he has led men and women in real combat. He has a high approval rating with Montana Veterans and he has the support of both high profile Montana Democrats and the National Democratic Party (that may end up being a two edged sword, though). His three primary problems are as follows -
A) He has less name recognition than either Daines or Bohlinger. At the end of the day, name recognition in a rural diverse state like Montana is key and he doesn’t own that particular key right now.
B) No one really knows where Walsh stands on any issues. He ran as the number two man on the Governor/Lt Governor ticket and kept pretty much in the background. While that was the proper thing to do in that campaign, it leaves the voters here in Montana with many questions on where he stands. Since the announcement of his candidacy, he really hasn’t been forthcoming, either about where he stands. This will tank him completely (assuming he survives the primary against Bohlinger) because this race won’t be won on the idea that a vote for Walsh is a vote against Daines. Walsh will need to get people in the booths in November to win and he hasn’t done anything to accomplish that.
C) As it stands right now, Walsh is running a non-campaign. He has no significant web or social media presence, he hasn’t spent a lot of time in front of cameras or microphones and he seems to be AWOL from his own campaign. This won’t get him elected. He needs to hire a front man that will make his name a household word if he wants to win. That just isn’t happening now.
I see two possible outcomes to this race – 1) Daines carries it away regardless of who wins the primary or 2) Walsh gets appointed to Baucus’s open seat and makes it a real race. If the latter happens, it will be Walsh’s race to win or lose.
Make no mistake, this will be an expensive and highly watched race. The Republicans need to pick up six seats to take the Senate and this one is already looking like a win for them. They will pull out all the stops to make that happen. For the record, I would not personally vote for Daines regardless of who his opponent was. “Shutdown Daines” is a self admitted corporatist and I believe that corporatism is the single largest current threat to our form of Government. I am on the fence about Walsh and Bohlinger. I find Bohlinger to be very self serving and he waffles position constantly. I also do not like the way he put the Governor on the spot with his push to call a special session of our State legislature. That should have been handled in a completely different way. Walsh, on the other hand, is an unknown quantity.