Who will be appointed to replace Max Baucus? Why all eyes are on John Walsh.

Now that the Senate has confirmed Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to be the next ambassador to China, the big question in Montana political circles is who Gov. Steve Bullock (D) will tap to replace him. The hot name right now: Lt. Gov. John Walsh (D).

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) (Haraz N. Ghanbari — Associated Press)
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) (Haraz N. Ghanbari/Associated Press)

Walsh has been the apparent front-runner for the appointment ever since the White House said late last year that it intended to send Baucus to China. Already in the race to replace Baucus, who announced last spring that he would retire, Walsh is the front-runner for the party's nomination and the preferred choice of party leaders.

By sending him to the Senate, Bullock would afford Walsh the advantages of incumbency: Greater visibility and name recognition, better access to donors, as well a chance to establish a voting record, all ahead of a high-stakes November election.

Walsh will need it. Rep. Steve Daines is the likely GOP nominee, giving Republicans a solid recruit in the state, which leans conservative. We recently rated Baucus's seat as the third most likely to flip party control on our most recent Friday Line.

Given what's at stake for Democrats in the Senate race and more broadly in the battle for the majority in the upper chamber, Bullock would be turning down a big-time opportunity to boost the chances of an ally if he does not appoint Walsh.

Walsh expressed interest in receiving the appointment in a recent interview with Politico. His campaign said Thursday that he remains interested in getting it.

There's another reason to believe Bullock could tap Walsh: In doing so, the governor would be sending someone to Washington with whom he is close. Governors have shown a preference in recent years of tapping allies to the U.S. Senate.

Sending Walsh to Washington would not be without political risk for Bullock, however. He will almost certainly face allegations from Republicans of backroom wheeling and dealing and putting politics first. Meanwhile, Walsh has a primary opponent, former lieutenant governor John Bohlinger. Bohlinger might also be inclined to criticize the move.

On the whole, though, it looks like there would more upside than downside for Bullock to send Walsh to the Senate. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) appointed then-Senate candidate and Rep. Dean Heller (R) to the Senate in 2011. Democrats made hay, calling Heller an "unelected" senator. But Heller won the following year, and Sandoval is no politically worse for the wear as a result of his choice.

A Bullock aide didn't respond to a request for a comment on the governor's thinking Thursday afternoon. Bullock's office said the governor would hold a news conference Friday but did not say what he would discuss.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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