HELENA – Gov. Steve Bullock on Friday appointed Lt. Gov. John Walsh as Montana’s next U.S. senator to serve out the final year of the term of Max Baucus, who resigned Thursday night to become the next U.S. ambassador to China.
Walsh, 53, submitted a letter to Bullock on Thursday night to resign as lieutenant governor, effective Sunday night. He will travel to Washington, D.C., on Monday and be sworn in Tuesday as the 21st U.S senator in Montana history.
“We’ll get to work immediately,” he said.
A Butte native and former adjutant general of the Montana National Guard, Walsh already was one of three Democrats running for the full six-year Senate term this year. Three Republicans also are in the Senate race, including U.S. Rep. Steve Daines.
Bullock’s appointment of Walsh was widely expected. Bullock had endorsed Walsh in the Senate race. Walsh also said he had asked Bullock for the interim appointment.
For weeks, Bullock deflected reporters’ questions about what sort of process he intended to use to fill the Senate seat.
Bullock said he wouldn’t discuss it until there was a Senate vacancy. That occurred Thursday night after Baucus resigned his seat after being confirmed for the ambassadorship 96-0.
A number of people offered their services for the Senate post, Bullock said, but he interviewed no one, not even Walsh, for the seat.
“It’s a decision that I’ve been thinking about a lot and I’ve taken very seriously,” Bullock said. “The first time I told John Walsh that he would be a U.S. senator was last night.”
Bullock said he ultimately chose the person he thought would be the most effective – just as he did when he tapped Walsh to be his running mate 22 months ago.
“I wanted to appoint someone who I believed would represent the values Montanans hold important,” Bullock told a news conference packed with journalists, Bullock administration officials and other top Democrats.
Bullock said he would follow the same process in finding a new lieutenant governor to replace Walsh.
Walsh thanked Bullock for the chance to work with him as his running mate and Baucus for his 35 years of Senate service.
Serving in the Senate will be “an enormous responsibility,” Walsh said, but one the new senator said he fully accepts.
“I know that by working together with Sen. (Jon) Tester and Congressman Daines, we can meet the challenge,” Walsh said.
In a statement, Daines said he looks forward to working with Walsh in Washington, adding, “And soon Montanans will have the opportunity to decide who best represents Montana’s priorities in the U.S. Senate.”
Walsh’s appointment to the Senate is expected to greatly increase his name identification with Montanans and boost his ability to raise campaign funds, particularly in Washington.
Walsh said he would continue to focus on Montana. He said he supports efforts to overhaul campaign finance laws and vowed, “I’m not going to get sucked into Washington, D.C.”
In recent weeks, news organizations have reported that Walsh was reprimanded in 2010 by the U.S. Army for coercing Montana National Guard troops to join the National Guard Association of the United States, a private advocacy group. Walsh was seeking a national leadership post in that group. The reprimand blocked his promotion to the rank of general.
An unapologetic Walsh released more than 400 pages of military records and said he had done nothing wrong.
As Senate priorities, Walsh said would work to serve Montana’s veterans and their families, to responsibly cut spending and reduce the federal debt, to strengthen the national economy and create jobs as Bullock and he had done in Montana, and to protect U.S. freedoms and liberties.
As for Senate committee assignments, Walsh said his top priority would be the Armed Services Committee. He said he also would be interested in committees that oversee commerce, transportation and agriculture.
State Republican Chairman Will Deschamps blasted Walsh’s appointment as a backroom deal.
“Gov. Bullock has sent Montanans a clear message that he would rather take marching orders from Barack Obama and Harry Reid than listen to the people of Montana,” Deschamps said.
The party and Republican legislative leaders had called for an open, transparent process, but the law empowers the governor to make the appointment to fill a Senate seat and lists no procedures or processes that must be followed.
Another Democratic candidate for the Senate, Dirk Adams, a Wilsall rancher and attorney, also blasted Walsh’s appointment as “political cronyism.”
The third Democratic candidate, former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, said he likely would withdraw from the Senate race as he had indicated earlier, although he wasn’t ready to do so Friday.
“Running against an incumbent is like giving someone a 40-yard head start in a 100-yard dash,” Bohlinger said. “I’m disappointed, but everyone goes through disappointments and we move on.”
David Parker, associate professor of political science at Montana State University, said while Democrats are excited about Walsh’s appointment, “it’s a wash for the most part.”
“The best thing Walsh could do with it is get a lot of earned media, get his name out,” Parker said. “On the flip side, he’s going to have to take some votes.”
Daines will be able to attack Walsh for some of those votes, he said.
Through Dec. 31, Walsh had raised $583,000 for his Senate race through Dec. 31, while Adams reported raising $103,000, including $73,000 coming from himself. Bohlinger raised about $20,000, including $10,000 from his own pocket.
Daines raised nearly $2.4 million in campaign funds through Dec. 31, including some raised for his House re-election effort that he abandoned, and reported having $1.9 million left in the bank.