Embattled Montana Senator Silent On Plans

August 7, 2014

In Montana, it’s been two days of awkward silence from Democrat John Walsh, who canceled a string of campaign events and fundraisers this week, fueling rumors that he may drop out of the race for the U.S. Senate. It’s a seat that Democrats have held in Montana for 100 years — and one that Republicans are heavily targeting as they try to recapture control of the chamber.

Sen. Walsh, who was appointed to the seat in February, has been trying to regain his footing after a plagiarism scandal. The New York Times first reported that Walsh lifted portions of previously published work in his 2007 master’s thesis at the Army War College.

While Walsh and his campaign have kept mum on his future, Democrats in the state have been working frantically behind the scenes to find another candidate should he back out.

One name that’s being floated is former NARAL-Pro Choice America President Nancy Keenan. Originally from the union town of Anaconda, Keenan is a former state legislator who also served as the state’s superintendent of public instruction. She lost a bid for Congress in 2000.

But that was 14 years ago. “She’s going to have to reintroduce herself, and that’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of money,” says Montana State University political scientist David Parker.

Another possibility is the state’s popular former Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Walsh became the front-runner only after Schweitzer said he wasn’t interested in running when Montana’s longest-serving senator, Max Baucus, announced his retirement last year. Earlier this summer, Schweitzer didn’t win any favors when he rattled off a series of uncomfortable rants to a reporter for National Journal.

But while on a reporting trip in Montana over the weekend, numerous people — including many Republicans — told me that Schweitzer is the only person who could get in the race late and stand a chance to beat GOP Rep. Steve Daines.

After all, as Parker puts it, even before the plagiarism scandal, this race was a long shot for Democrats. “I would say from the beginning, this was always a tough race, regardless of who they had in there, minus Schweitzer, because this is a midterm election,” Parker says.

For his part, in an email to NPR, Schweitzer wouldn’t say whether he was considering a run, or in talks with Democrats. Of course, there’s still the scenario that Walsh may decide to stay in, especially if no other Democrat emerges — or expresses interest — to replace him this late in the campaign.

One of the last times Walsh spoke publicly was in this interview with me Sunday, for a story that aired this week on Morning Edition.

“I’m not a quitter,” Walsh said, at the state party headquarters in Helena. “I’m going to continue to fight on behalf of the citizens of Montana.”

Walsh may have some argument there if you consider the most recent poll in the race — the first since the plagiarism scandal — conducted by the GOP firm Vox Populi Polling and released Monday.

It shows that Walsh has only slipped a few percentage points, while Daines has yet to crack the 50 percent mark, with 18 percent saying they’re still undecided.

“Walsh didn’t erode a lot, and Daines didn’t gain much,” says Montana State University’s Parker. “I think the plagiarism stuff has made people leery of committing to anyone now.”

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