Thursday, February 13, 2014

Analysis: Walsh “incumbency” not much of an advantage


State media outfits aren’t very enthusiastic about Gov. Steve Bullock’s approach to naming Sen. Max Baucus’ replacement in the U.S. Senate.

Three of Lee Newspapers largest dailies published highly critical editorials over the past week slamming Bullock for his “lack of transparency” in picking his former running mate and presumptive Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. John Walsh, to be  Baucus’ replacement in the Senate.

The Missoulian, in an editorial that was reprinted in Walsh’s hometown Butte paper, The Montana Standard, said Bullock “should not have appointed his lieutenant governor,” and criticized Bullock for doing so “without even an attempt at transparency” or the “barest explanation of his reasoning.”

The Billings Gazette blasted the Democrats for playing “closed-door power politics.” The Gazette, like most pundits, believes Walsh’s appointment is an attempt by Senate Democrats to boost the party’s chances of maintaining a slim majority – or even a tie –  come November. If the Democrats lose the Senate, then President Barack Obama will become one of the lamest ducks in modern presidential history in the remaining two years of his term in office.

As the Gazette correctly points out:

“…whoever Bullock appoints could help tip the congressional balance of power to the Republicans or keep it in Democrats’ hands. Either way, the stakes are high and the ramifications huge.”

Walsh, who is now the incumbent U.S. Senator from Montana, almost certainly will enjoy a fundraising advantage he wouldn’t have had without the appointment.

The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart called Obama’s choice of  Baucus as the next U.S. envoy to China, and Bullock’s appointment of Walsh to take his place, a kind of “non-financial corruption”:

“To be fair to Baucus, he did not raise money for the president, he actually stepped down from the Senate so the Democratic governor of Montana could appoint his replacement, making it more likely that Democrats will retain the Senate.”

On the one hand, all the hand-wringing over Walsh’s appointment seems  predictable and a little over the top. (And for anyone to suggest that Republicans wouldn’t have pulled a similar stunt if the shoe were on the other foot is either naïve or disingenuous.)

It strikes me, too, that the transparency argument might be a bit of a straw man. It was Bullock’s choice to make. Bullock is a Democrat. Baucus is a Democrat. Democrats have held that seat for 100 years. Of course Bullock was going to choose a Democrat.  And since Bullock endorsed Walsh for the seat back in November, it should come as no surprise that he would pick Walsh. 

And where is it written that if a senator steps down from his or her seat upon appointment by the president to a diplomatic post, then the senator’s party must give up the incumbency advantage ?

Like it or not, Baucus, and the Democrats, earned that incumbency advantage by beating Republicans in six consecutive Senate races. That advantage is part of the game, though I really don’t think Walsh will benefit much from it in this case.

Had Baucus stayed in the race he most certainly would have faced a tougher reelection challenge than he’s had in the past 12 years, but he still would have been the favorite to win.  Walsh is now the incumbent, which gives him a fundraising edge he would otherwise not have had. But how great of an advantage is it, really?

Walsh doesn’t have 35 years of Senate experience, seniority or committee chairmanships under his belt like his predecessor had. There’s only so much time for him to introduce bills, cast votes and make floor speeches between now and November. In an election year most incumbents spend more time on the campaign trail than in the office, and votes of consequence are few in election years.

Walsh is going to be splitting time between learning a new job in Washington, D.C. and introducing himself to voters in Montana, most of whom don’t really know anything about him or the issues he stands for.

The presumptive GOP nominee, first-term Republican Congressman Steve Daines, has already won a statewide federal race and is way ahead in fundraising. One could make the argument that Walsh’s appointment – if he wins the nomination in June — simply levels the financial playing field in what would amount to an “incumbent vs. incumbent” race.

It seems to me what critics of this process really want is for Bullock or Walsh to admit what everyone already knows: the Democrats are going to do everything they can to keep control of the Senate.

The question is whether the plan will backfire.

Democrats get their chance to vet Bullock’s decision in June when the party faithful go to the polls and cast their votes in the primary election.

If Walsh is indeed his party’s nominee, then come November the rest of Montana will get a chance to weigh-in.

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