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Politicians weigh in on Montana Senate race ahead of possible early Baucus departure

By Grace Ditzler, KTVM Reporter, gditzler@ktvm.com
Published On: Dec 19 2013 10:55:23 PM MST
Updated On: Dec 19 2013 11:36:33 PM MST
BOZEMAN, Mont. -

Analysts say there's a big shake up for the 2014 Montana Senate race, because of President Obama's expected nomination of Max Baucus as Ambassador to China.

We're told President Obama's expected nomination of Max Baucus as Ambassador to China could help the White House and Democrats prevent Republicans from gaining a Senate majority.

That's because Governor Steve Bullock will need to appoint someone to finish Baucus's term.

"I expect Governor Bullock will work very hard to use a very transparent and diligent process to make a choice," said Democrat State Senator Mike Phillips.

Many signs are pointing to fellow Democrat, Lieutenant Governor John Walsh, who is running in the 2014 Senate race.

Phillips said he thinks Walsh is the logical choice.

"His service in the military is outstanding; his serving in Montana is outstanding," Phillips said.

But Art Wittich, a Republican State Senator, said he's worried this is less about John Walsh's credentials, and more about the Democratic agenda.

"One thing that people are concerned about is any potential backroom deal that this is a result of some discussions with Senator Reid, and President Obama, and Governor Bullock to in effect jump start Lieutenant Governor Walsh's campaign," Wittich explained.

If Bullock appoints Walsh, Walsh would go into the election as an incumbent. Some think that would give him a leg up in the race, and keep the seat in Democratic hands.

But when we talked with political expert David Parker on Wednesday, he told us the percentage of an appointee going on to win re-election isn't as high as some may think.

"Only about 40 percent of the time do appointed Senators actually win reelection so I wouldn't necessarily say that it would create a huge advantage for Democrats moving forward," Parker explained.

If Baucus gets the nomination, all eyes will be on Governor Steve Bullock, as he chooses a replacement.

"The most important thing should be finding an ideal person to serve in the United States Senate in Senator Baucus' absence," Phillips said. "It should have nothing to do with politics. It should have everything to do with serving in the Senate well, and representing Montana well."

President Obama is expected to make the official announcement to nominate Baucus as Ambassador to China tomorrow.

Baucus would take over in January, meaning Governor Bullock would have to make his appointment to the Senate in the next few weeks.

We asked John Bohlinger, another Democratic Senate candidate, about the possible Walsh appointment to the Senate. He said he thinks there are a number of people Bullock should look consider instead of Walsh or any other Senate candidate, like former Governor Brian Schweitzer.

But he said it's very possible Walsh will get the nod from Bullock. He said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid personally called him when he first announced he would run and urged Bohlinger not to run, because they wanted Walsh to win.