- Associated Press - Thursday, August 7, 2014

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana U.S. Sen. John Walsh dropped his election campaign Thursday amid allegations he plagiarized large portions of a 2007 research project, leaving fellow Democrats to scramble for a replacement with the election less than three months away.

Nationally, the development only improves the odds for Republicans, who need a net gain of six seats in November to take Senate control. Even before Walsh’s exit, strategists in both parties considered his Senate race against U.S. Rep. Steve Daines an opportunity to tip one more seat in Republicans’ favor.

The Montana Democratic Party must hold a nominating convention before Aug. 20 to choose a replacement candidate.

Notably absent from any list of candidates will be former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, whose name had circulated as a promising potential contender even before Walsh’s announcement. The two-term Democratic governor shot down the possibility in social media postings Thursday. He later confirmed that he would not run in a message to The Association Press.

Schweitzer also declined a chance to run earlier this year, when he said he wasn’t interested in the seat that opened when six-term Sen. Max Baucus was named U.S. Ambassador to China.

Walsh was appointed to fill Baucus’ seat in February. The former National Guard commander said in a statement to supporters Thursday that he was leaving the race but will stay in office until his term ends in January 2015.

Walsh said the controversy surrounding his U.S. Army War College research paper had become a “distraction.”

“I am ending my campaign so that I can focus on fulfilling the responsibility entrusted to me as your U.S. Senator,” he said. “You deserve someone who will always fight for Montana, and I will.”

His campaign declined interview requests.

The announcement came as an Army War College investigation is set to begin Aug. 15 into Walsh’s college paper. The senator previously said he wrongfully cited some passages in the work, but not deliberately. Lee Newspapers of Montana first reported Walsh’s departure from the race.

The decision is a boost for Daines, a former technology company executive from Bozeman who is giving up his House seat after one term to run for Senate.

The Republican said Thursday he respected Walsh’s decision. He wouldn’t comment on the plagiarism allegation other than to say it was between Walsh and Montanans.

Daines has maintained a sizable fundraising advantage, raising $3.6 million since last fall, his campaign said last month. Walsh had raised nearly $2.8 million, according to his campaign.

The upcoming nominating convention for a replacement will be comprised of Democratic leaders from county party committees, along with federal and statewide elected officials and the party’s executive board.

Montana State University political analyst David Parker said Walsh made the right choice for his family given the huge amount of media attention surrounding the plagiarism charges. But he said it puts Democrats in a bind for November.

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