HELENA — In Montana’s marquee election this year, the U.S. Senate race, an incumbent is fighting to hold his seat — but with his incumbency less than three months old, it’s almost like a battle for an open seat.
The incumbent, of course, is Democratic Sen. John Walsh, the former Montana National Guard adjutant general and state lieutenant governor who was appointed to his Senate post Feb. 7 by his then-boss, Gov. Steve Bullock.
Walsh, 53, whose first foray into politics was his run with Bullock for lieutenant governor just two years ago, looks like an underdog in the race, with several independent polls showing him trailing Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines by double-digits in a hypothetical match-up.
The race also is bound to garner national attention and money, for Republicans see it as a prime opportunity to pick up a Democratic-held seat in their quest to wrest party control of the Senate away from Democrats for the first time since 2006.
But how Walsh matches up against Daines, the leading Republican candidate, this fall is getting ahead of things: First, Walsh must turn back a pair of challengers in the Democratic primary on June 3.
The other Democrats in the race are former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger and Dirk Adams, a Wilsall rancher, attorney and newcomer to Montana politics.
Adams is largely unknown to Montana voters and Democrats, but has committed nearly $300,000 of his own money to the race, hiring a small staff and buying broadcast advertising to help boost his profile. He also has singer-songwriter Carole King performing at a pair of fundraisers on his behalf in Bozeman and Missoula later this week.
Bohlinger, who spent eight years as lieutenant governor under popular Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, is much better-known among Democrats, but, until now, had spent most of his political life as a Republican.
Yet Bohlinger has been campaigning hard across the state and touting a progressive agenda that he said he’ll pursue strongly as a Democratic member of the U.S. Senate.
Still, Walsh is clearly the favorite in the primary election, having won the endorsement of the state Democratic Party and many reliably Democratic interest groups, like organized labor, and having raised more than $1.5 million in campaign funds, dwarfing the funds raised by his primary opponents.
“I would be surprised if John Walsh didn’t get the nomination,” said Montana State University political scientist Dave Parker. “It’s a challenge for John or Dirk to pull it off. He’s using that power of incumbency to drive up his name recognition; he has more ability to get his name out there … because he’s the incumbent.”
Parker, however, said the Democratic primary race is far from over. Walsh remains somewhat unknown among the average voters, Bohlinger has pretty good name recognition, and Adams has the ability to spend some money to raise his profile, Parker said.
If turnout is low at the June 3 primary — and it’s likely to be — a few thousands votes can make a difference, he said.
Walsh became a senator in February, appointed to succeed veteran U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who stepped down to become U.S. ambassador to China.
Baucus had already announced 10 months earlier that he would not run for re-election this year, ending a 35-year-plus career in the Senate.
Many Democrats had hoped that Schweitzer would be the candidate to run for the Baucus seat, which has been in Democratic hands since Montana voters began directly electing senators 100 years ago.
But once Schweitzer decided last July that he wouldn’t run, Democrats began hunting for a standard-bearer for the high-profile seat, and key party leaders settled on Walsh.
Walsh officially became a candidate last October and then, with the surprise departure of Baucus, became the incumbent.
Bohlinger and Adams, however, had been looking over the race last summer, too, and have declined to cede the field to Walsh.
Bohlinger is trying to show that a low-budget, people-to-people campaign can succeed, while Adams has tried to carve out a niche as the most pro-environment candidate in the mix, opposing the Keystone XL Pipeline and supporting a broad, regional wilderness bill.