- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 4, 2014

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana voters set the stage Tuesday for a November election that will determine whether a U.S. Senate seat that has been in Democratic hands for a century will stay there after the resignation of six-term Sen. Max Baucus.

U.S. Rep. Steve Daines is leaving his House seat to challenge incumbent Sen. John Walsh, who was appointed in February to replace Baucus.

Daines easily defeated his primary challengers, state Rep. Champ Edmunds and political newcomer Susan Cundiff, to win the GOP nomination Tuesday. Walsh also dispensed with his primary opponents, former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger and Wilsall rancher Dirk Adams, to secure the Democratic nomination.

The race between Walsh and Daines promises to be one of the most closely watched in the nation, with Republicans needing a net gain of six seats to take control of the Senate.

“We know it’s going to be a difficult race,” Walsh said. “What I want to do is hold Congressman Daines accountable. … I’m going to try to convince Montanans that his actions have been irresponsible with respect to standing up for Montanans.”



The GOP sees Baucus’ departure as the best shot of recapturing a seat it last held when Joseph Dixon served in the Senate in 1907.

“This would be historic for Montana, but more importantly, Montana’s voice needs to be heard in the U.S. Senate, not the voice of Harry Reid,” Daines said Tuesday night, referring to the Democratic Senate majority leader. “I hope to bring that voice to the Senate, a voice that pushes back on the overreach of the federal government.”

The Republican and Democratic candidates will face a third challenger in the Nov. 4 general election, Libertarian candidate Roger Roots of Livingston.

The Walsh and Daines campaigns have been operating for weeks almost as though there were no primary elections, with each hammering the other and looking ahead to the general election.

The Senate race was at the top of the ticket, but Montana voters also picked between party nominees for the U.S. House seat that Daines is vacating, along with dozens of contested state legislative primaries.

John Lewis won the Democratic nomination for U.S. House, defeating former Montana House Speaker John Driscoll in the primary.

The five-way Republican primary was too close to call as of 10 p.m. Tuesday.

Baucus was to retire after 36 years in the U.S. Senate when his term expired in January 2015, but he resigned in February to become ambassador to China. That paved the way for Bullock to appoint Walsh, who was his lieutenant governor at the time.

Bullock has repeatedly said the decision to appoint Walsh was his alone, and that he believed Walsh to be the best person for the appointment. Republicans said Baucus’ resignation and Walsh’s appointment were orchestrated to give the Democrats an advantage.

Baucus also loomed over the House race, with Lewis making his first run for political office after serving 12 years as a Baucus aide.

Lewis is looking capitalize on the momentum of his primary win against Driscoll to take back the seat that Daines is leaving. Democrats haven’t represented Montana in the U.S. House since Rep. Pat Williams left in 1997.

“It’s a huge challenge. It’s been a long time, but this has been a great opportunity. I’m going to give it everything,” Lewis said.

Lewis will face the Republican nominee in a close five-way primary that was led by former state Sens. Ryan Zinke of Whitefish and Corey Stapleton of Billings with 37 percent of precincts counted.

The other GOP candidates were state Sen. Elsie Arntzen, state Sen. Matt Rosendale and Helena businessman Drew Turiano.

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch said she expected turnout in Tuesday’s elections to be comparable to the 32 percent of voters who cast ballots in 2010, the last midterm elections. More than 144,000 people voted absentee in this election, she said.

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AP writers Matthew Brown in Billings and Lisa Baumann contributed to this report.

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