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Democrats Face A Steep Climb In Montana Senate Race

John Walsh has ended his Senate campaign against Republican Rep. Steve Daines in Montana after admitting he plagiarized in his master’s thesis. The incumbent’s announcement probably doesn’t change much because it was unlikely that a Democrat was going to win anyway.

One potential replacement, former governor Brian Schweitzer, could enliven the race, but he may not be as strong as last year’s polling might lead people to believe.

Walsh was not a serious threat to win. Even before the scandal broke, he was trailing in most polls by about 10 points — and he was not a weak candidate. He had been a brigadier general in the military, had served as lieutenant governor of Montana and had been appointed to the Senate in February to replace Max Baucus, who resigned to become ambassador to China.

Walsh’s poor polling numbers reflected the political scene in Montana. President Obama’s approval rating in the state was only 33 percent in 2013, according to Gallup. Walsh was competing in a midterm election, which usually means bad news for the president’s party. Additionally, there should be a slight wind at the back of Republicans in the national environment. A last-second substitution by the Democrats won’t change any of that and is unlikely to overcome it.

Democrats have until Aug. 20 to pick a replacement for Walsh. The nominating convention of 175 will include elected officials and party leaders throughout the state.

One credible replacement, John Bohlinger, a former lieutenant governor and primary challenger to Walsh this year, didn’t do any better than Walsh in hypothetical polling. In fact, Bohlinger did 2 points worse on average in matchups against Daines than Walsh did in three polls earlier this year in which they were both tested as potential nominees.

Schweitzer, the former governor, would probably have a better chance; he led Daines by as much as 10 points in April 2013. But he probably won’t be picked and has shown questionable judgment in interviews. In a National Journal interview, Schweitzer spoke about “gaydar” and characterized Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California as “the woman who was standing under the streetlight with her dress pulled all the way up over her knees, and now she says, ‘I’m a nun,’ when it comes to this spying!”

The name getting the most buzz is Nancy Keenan, the former NARAL-Pro Choice America president, because of her national financial network. But she isn’t well-known in Montana and would need to introduce herself to voters quickly. And though the state is more libertarian than conservative, the past two Democrats elected to the Senate from Montana, Baucus and Jon Tester, were less liberal than two-thirds of Democratic senators in the last Congress. It’s not hard to see how a former pro-choice activist would be painted as too liberal for the state.

Overall, this race is still Daines’s to lose. FiveThirtyEight had him as a 95 percent favorite, and though a substitute candidate may strengthen the Democratic hand slightly, Walsh’s replacement will have a high hill climb to make this race truly competitive.

Update (August 7, 8:36 p.m.): A few hours after Walsh announced he was dropping out, Schweitzer took to Twitter to make clear he wouldn’t jump into the race.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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