Montana Sen. John Walsh's first full day on the job came as a crash course on the perils of incumbency.
First, the newly sworn-in Democrat cast a vote Wednesday in favor of raising the debt ceiling, a move that's sure to come back to haunt him in this year's Montana Senate race. Then, the super PAC American Crossroads released an attack ad stemming from a reprimand he received while serving in the Montana National Guard.
Meanwhile, back in Montana, critics continue to fume about Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock's decision to select an active Senate candidate to replace Sen. Max Baucus, who resigned after 36 years in the Senate to become ambassador to China.
"Gov. Steve Bullock should not have appointed his lieutenant governor, John Walsh, to the Senate seat vacated by Max Baucus last week," said an editorial in the Missoulian. "That he did so without even an attempt at transparency — without even the barest explanation of his reasoning to the people of Montana — is appalling."
For Democrats, conferring on Mr. Walsh the advantages of incumbency must have seemed like a no-brainer. The party is fighting an uphill battle to hang onto the Senate seat in a state that swung for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 presidential race by a margin of 55 to 42 percent.
On the other hand, the appointment makes Mr. Walsh vulnerable to charges that he's part of the Washington establishment.
"He's been running as an outsider. This kind of makes him an insider," Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican, told the Associated Press.
University of Montana political-science professor Robert Saldin called the appointment "something of a mixed blessing, and certainly not a game-changer.
"He does have a higher profile now and he's going to be getting more media attention. But he's also going to be casting some votes, and some of those may very well be controversial," Mr. Saldin said.
While Mr. Walsh is now the prohibitive favorite in the Democratic primary, he remains the underdog in a likely match-up with Rep. Steve Daines, Montana Republican, who's leading by double digits in early polling.
A tougher primary battle may have actually helped Mr. Walsh, a political newcomer whose only previous campaign experience was his run for lieutenant governor on the 2012 ticket with Mr. Bullock.
"I think a primary challenge may have been good for someone who has no political background essentially," said Mr. Saldin. "Having to perform when the stakes are a little lower could have been a good thing for him. Now he's going to be thrust into the big time. This is going to be one of the most watched Senate elections in the country, and there's not going to be a lot of time to learn the ropes. It's going to be game on against Daines."
Republicans and even some Democrats had urged the governor to select a caretaker for the vacancy who would not run for the seat in November. After the Walsh pick was announced Friday, the Montana Republican Party blasted the decision as the product of "backroom deals."
One of those who didn't criticize the appointment was Mr. Daines, who invited Mr. Walsh to join him and Sen. Jon Tester, Montana Democrat, at their weekly coffee get-togethers.
"Since then, Montanans have enjoyed the opportunity to meet all members of Montana's congressional delegation in a casual, politics-free setting," said Mr. Daines in a letter. "We intend to carry on this bipartisan tradition, and welcome you to join."
A retired career Montana Army National Guard officer who commanded more than 700 troops in Iraq, Mr. Walsh was sworn in Tuesday by Vice President Joseph R. Biden on the Senate floor.
The American Crossroads ad stems from a formal reprimand Mr. Walsh received in 2010 from the Army Inspector General for advocating on behalf of the National Guard Association, a private group. Mr. Walsh told KRTV-TV in Great Falls that he disagreed with the reprimand because he was promoting an organization that benefited the National Guard.
Even in Montana, Mr. Walsh wasn't especially well-known until he received the Senate nod.
"There are big questions about even some of his most basic positions on policy questions," said Mr. Saldin. "He's an unknown, and all of a sudden he's a U.S. senator. A lot of people don't have a good sense of him."
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