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Next Man (or Woman) Up in Montana After Walsh Drops Out of Senate Race

Montana Democrats must feel like Al Pacino’s character in the movie Any Given Sunday. He’s a coach who loses two quarterbacks in the first quarter of a game with no replacement left except a guy whose name Pacino’s character can’t remember.

Democrats lost their quarterback, Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.), when he dropped out of the race August 7.

Walsh was their third-string QB.

Everyone wanted Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to run for re-election. But he retired and became ambassador to China. Democrats then looked to a former governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer, to run. He declined.

Time to go to the team’s taxi squad.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock named his lieutenant governor, Walsh, to the Senate in February and Walsh decided to run for a full term.

It was a troubled campaign from the beginning for Walsh.

The campaign of Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) questioned his military record and raised up old allegations of sexual harassment against Walsh.

The Walsh camp quelled that story, but it was quickly replaced by the EPA Clean Power Plan that was branded by Republicans like Daines as a War on Coal.

Walsh’s campaign was just beginning to pick up steam against Daines when it was knocked off the tracks for good by a plagiarism scandal.

The New York Times broke the story that a healthy portion of Walsh’s master’s thesis, written while a student at the U.S. Army War College, was lifted from other sources. The Walsh campaign wobbled on its tracks after taking what turned out to be a knockout punch.

It might have been a one-two combination that put Walsh down. The first was the jab thrown by the NYT article on plagiarism. The second could have come from Montana Democrats themselves who recognized a loser in the ring when they saw one.

Whatever.

Walsh took a few days off before announcing he was pulling out of the race via a statement on his campaign’s website.

“Nothing is more important to me than serving the people of Montana. It’s been my privilege for more than 30 years, defending both our state and nation,” Walsh wrote.

“The 2007 research paper from my time at the U.S. Army War College has become a distraction from the debate you expect and deserve. I am ending my campaign so that I can focus on fulfilling the responsibility entrusted to me as your U.S. senator. You deserve someone who will always fight for Montana, and I will.”

Now Montana Democrats have to find a new candidate and they have to do it fast. The deadline is Aug. 20. The Hill reported Democrats will hold an emergency convention in Helena, Mont., on Aug. 16.

Schweitzer, whom the Democrats wanted to replace Sen. Max Baucus instead of Walsh in February, posted a message on his Facebook page about an hour after the Walsh withdrawal announcement went live, saying he wasn’t interested in running against Daines.

“Nancy and I love the Georgetown we call home and the stunning views of the Pintler Mountains take our breath away. Although I’m flattered to be on some of the lists of potential U.S. Senate candidates, I respectfully decline to seek the nomination. I enjoyed being in public service as Governor of Montana. I believe in citizen government — where citizens step up to serve then step aside for others to do the same. My deepest thanks to John Walsh for his continued service. I look forward to supporting whoever the next nominee turns out to be,” Schweitzer wrote.

Who does that leave on the Democrats’ bench?

Montana State Sen. Dave Wanzenried told NBC Montana he would be willing to start a Senate campaign if his fellow Democrats want him to run.

“I’m available. I’m eager to make sure that we make clear distinctions between what we stand for as Democrats and as Montanans against the candidate that’s been nominated by the Republicans, and make the case that we are the better choice,” Wanzenried told NBC Montana not long after Walsh made his decision public.

The NYT, where Walsh’s problems began, reported Aug. 7 that the next man up could be a woman.

Nancy Keenan, who used to run NARAL Pro-Choice America, is being considered, according to the paper, as is another Montana Democrat, former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger.

Bohlinger, who ran against Walsh in the Democratic primary, told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that he was wiling to run against Daines if the party needed him.

No matter who runs, man or woman, they will be entering the game down by more than a few touchdowns.

A CBS News/NY Times survey of Montana voters that was released July 24 showed Daines in the lead by 16 points.

“Steve Daines is one of the strongest Senate candidates in the country, was in the process of defeating Sen. Walsh and will defeat whichever Band-aid candidate Democrats can persuade to get in the race,” said Brad Dayspring, the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s communications director, in a statement following Walsh’s announcement.

Real Clear Politics has consistently rated the Montana Senate race as “Likely GOP.”

(For complete 2014 midterm coverage, get your campaign fix on The Grid.)