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What Max Baucus's departure means for the Montana Senate race

- December 19, 2013

(Haraz N. Ghanbari — Associated Press)
This is a guest post by David C.W. Parker, an associate professor of political science at Montana State University, and Robert Saldin, an associate professor of political science and  director of the Project on American Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Montana.
Yesterday’s news that Montana Sen. Max Baucus (D) will trade in his Finance Committee gavel for the keys to the U.S. Embassy in China has invited much speculation about how this will affect the campaign to replace him next year.  Election handicappers have long considered Republican Rep. Steve Daines the favorite to defeat the likely Democratic nominee, Lt. Governor John Walsh.  But now that Baucus will presumably vacate his seat earlier than expected, has this conventional wisdom  been turned on its head?  We are skeptical.
Baucus had already announced that he wouldn’t be seeking another term, and an aggressive race between Daines and Walsh is thus underway to replace him. But now, given Baucus’s 35 years in the Senate and the importance of America’s relationship with China, it’s no stretch to think that he’ll be on the fast track to confirmation, leaving his seat vacant in a matter of weeks. That would mean Democratic Governor Steve Bullock could soon appoint a replacement, and it’s clear who that would be: Walsh. The question is whether an appointment to the remainder of Baucus’s term would help Walsh in next year’s campaign.
In fact, there are three good reasons to believe that Republicans are still favored to win this seat even if Walsh gets a temporary ticket to Washington.
First, while Democrats might cite the power of incumbency, incumbent appointees are very different from incumbents who were elected (for a list of Senate appointees since 1913, see here).  Sitting senators rarely lose reelection; during the post-war period, senators have been reelected about 85 percent of the time when they chose to run for another term.
But appointed senators are different. Walsh would not be blessed with the advantages typical senators enjoy, such as widespread name recognition or a slew of accomplishments to tout on the campaign trail. According to data compiled by Nate Silver and updated by us, of the 52 senators appointed to fill seats as of 2012, only 22 — or 42 percent — have been reelected. So appointing Walsh to the Senate seat is hardly the game changer you might think.
Second, the national political environment favors Republicans. On average, the party opposing the president picks up about four Senate seats during a midterm election — and on only five occasions since 1934 has the president’s party actually gained seats in the Senate (1934, 1962, 1970, 1982, and 2002). There are a variety of reasons for this, but one is that the natural surge for the party winning the White House invariably ebbs as buyer’s remorse sets in during the midterm election and voters sit in judgment of the party in power. Performance in the midterm is also related to the number of seats up for election and where those seats are located. As is well known, Democrats have more Senate seats to defend in this cycle, and many of them are in redder states like Montana (and also Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, South Dakota and West Virginia).  As one of us has previously written, the national political environment and partisan composition of Montana’s electorate makes holding the Montana Senate seat and retaining — let alone gaining — seats in the Senate a tough proposition for Democrats.
Finally, regardless of whether Walsh is appointed or not, Daines enters the campaign with formidable advantages that are unlikely to evaporate. For starters, he’s a sitting congressman. And while that might not mean much in California or New York, Montana only has one congressional district, meaning Rep. Daines’s constituency is exactly the same as a potential Senator Daines’s constituency. In addition to his name recognition, he is popular, having adroitly cultivated credibility with both the Tea Party and moderates alike.  He also has the backing of the national Republican establishment, which will translate into a sizable campaign fund.
Ultimately, Baucus’s departure is unlikely to change the dynamics of the Montana Senate race. Daines is well-positioned to win the seat in an election cycle favoring Republicans. Democrats should keep their champagne on ice.
(Note: The post originally stated that the president’s party has gained seats in only 3 elections since 1934.  The correct number is five elections.)