HELENA — Montana governors have twice previously made appointments to fill vacancies in the U.S. Senate.
Both occurred when sitting senators died.
In January 1978, U.S. Sen. Lee Metcalf, D-Mont., died of a heart attack. He had already announced the previous year he wouldn’t seek re-election in 1978.
Then-U.S. Rep. Max Baucus, D-Mont., was already running for the open Senate seat. He was not interested in the appointment.
Gov. Thomas L. Judge, also a Democrat, didn’t get along with Baucus and tried to find someone who could defeat his rival in the primary.
Judge settled on Paul Hatfield, chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court, for the appointment.
Hatfield had never run for a partisan race before and tried to mount a campaign for the June primary election while he was learning how to be a senator.
He also took a highly controversial vote when he cast the final Senate vote necessary to ratify the Panama Canal treaties negotiated by the Carter administration. Critics dubbed him “Panama Paul,” while supporters of the treaties praised his courage.
Baucus routed Hatfield by 65 percent to 19 percent, with other Democratic candidates dividing the rest of the votes. Baucus went on to defeat Republican Larry Williams of Kalispell in the general election to win the Senate seat.
President Jimmy Carter later appointed Hatfield to be a federal judge.
At the time, rumors were rampant that Judge wanted to resign as governor and have Lt. Gov. Ted Schwinden advance to governor and appoint him to the Senate. Judge’s political advisers inside and outside the Capitol talked him out of this so-called “self-appointment.”
On his deathbed in 2006, Judge told one of his top outside advisers that it was the worst advice he ever received and that he should have ignored it and resigned and let Schwinden appoint him to the Senate.
Part of the reason that Judge’s advisers recommended against the so-called “self-appointment” was because of what happened in Montana in 1933.
Longtime U.S. Sen. Thomas Walsh, D-Mont., died on a train in March 1933, while on his honeymoon with his Cuban bride. Walsh was planning to resign his Senate seat shortly anyway to accept President Franklin Roosevelt’s appointment to be U.S. attorney general.
In Montana, Gov. “Honest John” Erickson resigned his post, and Lt. Gov. Frank Cooney moved up to be governor. Cooney, in turn, appointed Erickson to the vacant Senate seat, in what became a highly controversial move.
Erickson lost in the Democratic Senate primary in 1934 to James Murray, who went on to serve in the Senate until 1960.
The Legislature attempted to impeach Cooney on what historians agree were trumped-up charges. Cooney died in office in 1935 and didn’t complete his term as governor.