Montana’s John Walsh to quit Senate race
By: Manu Raju and Maggie Haberman
August 7, 2014 04:07 PM EDT
Sen. John Walsh will drop out of the race for his seat, a source close to his campaign said Thursday, abruptly ending a short-lived Senate career marred by revelations that the Montana Democrat had plagiarized significant portions of his master’s thesis.
He will remain in the Senate through the end of his term, which ends in early January. “I am ending my campaign so that I can focus on fulfilling the responsibility entrusted to me as your U.S. senator,” Walsh said in a statement to supporters, the Missoulian reported. “You deserve someone who will always fight for Montana, and I will.”
Walsh’s decision throws into further doubt the Democrats’ chances of holding the seat, which had been occupied by Sen. Max Baucus since 1978 until he was confirmed as U.S. ambassador to China in February.
Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock appointed Walsh, his lieutenant governor, to replace Baucus, in the apparent hope that his incumbency could be a boon in a challenging electoral environment. But with Walsh out, the Montana Democratic Party now has until Aug. 20 to name a new candidate in the November election — and not a strong bench to choose from.
Whoever does step in would face Republican Rep. Steve Daines, who is heavily favored to win a seat the GOP has not held since 1913.
With a Monday deadline to withdraw from the race looming, Walsh had come under increasing pressure from some in the party and two of Montana’s leading newspapers to call it quits.
Walsh initially resisted leaving the race, sources said. But he decided by Wednesday to drop out after a meeting the previous day with top aides, including his Senate chief of staff, according to a source familiar with the sequence of events.
The aides told him during that Tuesday gathering that he had no path forward, and he seemed to eventually come to terms with that. The announcement was delayed, however, so that he could tell his campaign staff personally, the source said, meaning he had to travel from Helena to Billings to break the news Thursday.
Walsh, 53, is facing an investigation from the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he had obtained his master’s degree in 2007, after The New York Times reported last month that significant passages of his 14-page thesis had been lifted from other sources without proper attribution.
With the scandal further hampering his already slim chances, some in Walsh’s party began to privately fret that his presence could hurt other Democrats on the ballot who had hoped to make gains in the state legislature and potentially take back the U.S. House seat that Daines is vacating.
Walsh’s withdrawal will likely spark GOP accusations that Democrats have engaged in backroom deals to boost their party’s chances — a line Republicans also used when Walsh was appointed to succeed Baucus.
But Democrats in Montana and Washington insisted that party leaders made a conscious effort to avoid taking a direct role in the 33-year military veteran’s deliberations — partly because many Democrats have already written off Montana in the race for the Senate. Democrats are much more focused on staving off the GOP in three southern states, Alaska and swing states such as Iowa and Colorado in order to maintain their tenuous majority.
The problem now facing state Democrats is finding a candidate who can compete against Daines. A number of Democrats hope that Nancy Keenan, the former national president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, will jump into the race, though some said she had already resisted suggestions to become a candidate. (She could not be reached for comment Thursday.) John Bohlinger, the former lieutenant governor, who earned 23 percent against Walsh in the June 3 Democratic primary, has expressed interest in running.
But the biggest wildcard may be Brian Schweitzer, the colorful and folksy former governor who is a polarizing force among Montana Democrats. Schweitzer, who has in the past toyed with running for the seat, did not respond to a phone call and text message seeking comment Thursday.
A late switch in a Senate race is uncommon but not unprecedented.
Facing an ethics controversy in late September 2002, for instance, Democrat Robert Torricelli suddenly dropped out of the New Jersey Senate race, paving the way for a replacement candidate — the late Frank Lautenberg — to jump in and save the seat for the Democrats that November.
And just 11 days before the 2002 election, Democrat Paul Wellstone died in a Minnesota plane crash, prompting the former vice president, Walter Mondale, to step in. Mondale ultimately lost to Republican Norm Coleman.