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MIKE DENNISON: U.S. Senate seat was an uphill battle all along for Democrats

MIKE DENNISON: U.S. Senate seat was an uphill battle all along for Democrats

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HELENA – U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, the Republican candidate for Montana’s U.S. Senate seat, must be feeling pretty confident about now – and a little bit lucky, too.

Now that Democratic Sen. John Walsh has withdrawn from the race in the wake of a plagiarism scandal over his 2007 master’s degree research paper, Daines has a clear path to becoming the first Republican to win this Senate seat in 100 years.

Just three months out from the election, Daines doesn’t even have a Democratic opponent.

He’ll get one next Saturday, when state Democratic Party delegates choose a replacement for Walsh on the ballot. But whoever they choose is likely to start the race with no campaign money and scant name recognition.

But are Democratic prospects for winning the Senate seat really that much worse than before Walsh pulled out? No. And don’t blame John Walsh for that.

Any way you slice it, once Montana’s Senate seat became open (with Democrat Max Baucus’ retirement announced last year) and Democrats’ best replacement prospect bailed last summer (former Gov. Brian Schweitzer), holding onto the seat became an uphill slog for Democrats.

“I think the race has always been hard, period, end of story,” says David Parker, a Montana State University political scientist. “Regardless of who the (new) candidate is, I think the chances are slim, with the exception of Schweitzer, who said no.”

President Barack Obama, whom Republicans will link to any Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, has poor approval ratings, particularly in Montana. The economy, while improving, hasn’t brought prosperity to many people. The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), the Democrats’ signature health-reform law, is hardly a smashing success.

Add it all up, and Democrats don’t have a lot to run on here, for the federal races.

Walsh had the misfortune to inherit this landscape, some 10 months ago.

To the Democratic campaign consultants and power brokers who talked him into running, Walsh looked good on paper: Iraq War veteran, a non-politician, a guy who had run successfully on a statewide ticket, as lieutenant governor with Gov. Steve Bullock in 2012.

All the Democratic powers-that-be climbed on board, despite doubts expressed by many rank-and-file Democrats, who saw Walsh on the campaign trail and thought he wouldn’t cut it: He didn’t know the issues very well, he lacked charisma, he didn’t excite anyone.

His promoters also apparently chose to ignore some potential problems, such as negative financial audits and some messy personnel lawsuits during his tenure as head of the state Military Affairs Department and a 2010 reprimand by the U.S. Army for improperly promoting a private group that supports the National Guard. And then, of course, the revelation two weeks ago by the New York Times that he plagiarized his master’s degree paper at the U.S. Army War College in 2007.

Walsh’s departure may offer a ray of hope for Democrats this election in Montana. They’ll get a new candidate with a relatively clean slate, and the rest of the ticket won’t have to keep talking about the plagiarism.

But for the U.S. Senate race, it’s a ray in a deep, dark tunnel.

Daines, 51, Montana’s freshman congressman, probably wouldn’t even be in the contest if Baucus or Schweitzer had stepped up.

But he is in the race, and he’s the prohibitive favorite. Daines has a very conservative voting record, aligning himself with the hard-core right on many issues, and will face scrutiny and criticism on that account.

Montana, however, is a pretty conservative state. And Daines, while cast by Democrats as “extreme,” is well-respected in the business community, helped grow one of Montana’s true success stories at the Bozeman software-development firm RightNow Technologies, and by most accounts, is a darned nice guy. Best of luck beating him.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at

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