Will Appointment of Interim Senator Curse Montana Governor Steve Bullock?

Montana voters long history of punishing politicians viewed as using appointments to give an unfair advantage in Montana Democratic Party primary elections.

With United States Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont) soon to vacate his senate seat to serve as Ambassador to China, all eyes are on Montana Governor Steve Bullock. Under section 13-25-202 of Montana law, the governor is allowed to make a “temporary appointment” to fill a senate vacancy until the next general election.

As serious political junkies know, the selection of such an interim senator is a decision that has cursed past Montana governors and their selections.

A similar appointment to the one that will mark the end of Baucus’s senate career was last made at the start of his time in the senate.

In 1978, Senator Lee Metcalf (D-Mont) died, giving Governor Tom Judge (D-Mont) the opportunity to choose an interim senator. Governor Judge selected Paul Hatfield, who was Chief Justice of the Montana Supreme Court. The curse of the senate appointment haunted both of them, with neither ever again winning an election.

While the appointment was intended to help Hatfield, the scheme backfired. Then Congressman Max Baucus was already running to be the Democratic Party’s 1978 senate nominee. Democrats rejected what was viewed as the governor using the appointment to give Hatfield an unfair advantage in the primary, and the interim senator was trounced 65-19 in an epic rejection of the governor. Adding insult to injury, after losing his senate reelection, Hatfield was hired as a staff attorney for the Montana Supreme Court, a body he had led as Chief Justice just eleven months earlier.

By inserting himself into the senate primary, Governor Judge made himself a target. Six weeks before Hatfield lost to Baucus, the AP reported, “Hatfield also has been battling increasing public sentiment that a vote for him in June is a vote for Judge…”

Governor Judge suffered a devastating blow to his popularity. Things got so bad the talk of Helena was his wife moving out of the governor’s mansion. When it came time for Judge to run for reelection, he didn’t even have the support of his own Lt Governor, who had been put on the ticket by Judge just a few years earlier. In fact, his Lt Governor ran against the sitting governor and in 1980 Gov. Judge lost renomination by Montana Democrats 51-42.

The senate appointment was the political equivalent of a murder-suicide.

Such a disaster for both appointer and appointee also occurred the only other time a governor was given the opportunity to appoint an interim senator. That was back in 1933, when Senator Thomas Walsh died.

Governor John Erickson resigned his post, and his Lt. Governor Frank Cooney ascended and…picked John Erickson to be the interim senator. Montana voters had a swift and decisive backlash to this “self-appointment” and again punished everyone involved. The interim senator lost, with Democratic Party primary voters rejecting the backroom deal. The legislature went ballistic against the new governor, even going so far as to try to remove Cooney from office via impeachment. Cooney died in office and Erickson — despite having once been popular enough to hold the record as the only Montana governor elected to three terms — would never again win an election.

It is against this historical backdrop that current Montana Governor Steve Bullock finds himself.

When word leaked that Baucus would be heading to China, the Washington Post claimed to have confirmation that Governor Bullock would choose his Lt Governor for the post. But the governor quickly backed away from that. Depending on who you ask, Baucus may not have been tapped as ambassador for any other reason than to allow a “triple-appointment” scheme, where Obama made the first pick and Bullock the second two (the governor would also get to appoint a vacancy in the office of Lt Governor).

But then there was another political earthquake when Montanans learned that Lt Governor John Walsh had been investigated as part of a major scandal that occurred during his time as Adjutant General of the Montana National Guard.

The gist of the scandal had to do with how Walsh prepared to run for future political office. He had a problem, he had zero experience with public policy. So Walsh decided to try to parlay his military experience into political experience by running for Vice-Chairman of the National Guard Association of the United States, which is a lobbying organization.

Walsh took the approach so typical of big city politics by trying to “club pack” and get votes not by convincing the current membership of his merits, but by adding new members to the organization who he knew would vote for him. Which is a solid strategy, not unlike a candidate running a voter registration drive. But as everyone with any political experience knows, you can’t use government resources to try and coerce government employees to join a political organization just so their boss can win a political election.

The initial reports revealed that the Inspector General of the United States Army concluded Walsh had improperly used his government position for private gain.

Weeks later, a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that following the Inspector General Report of Investigation, the matter was referred to the Army Judge Advocate General (JAG), who issued a formal “memorandum of reprimand” for Walsh attempting to coerce 177 National Guard officers and warrant officers under his command to help his political career.

As the scandal developed, things only looked worse. It took over a month before the words “courts marshall” showed up in print.

This was devastating for Walsh, because the only reason he’d violated federal codes of ethics in the first place was to try an pad a thin resume. The scandal had turned Walsh’s only political positive into a neutral advantage at best or a negative at worse. And Walsh has nothing else to fall back upon, no other relevant policy experience to make his case for political office.

Even worse for John Walsh, a poll that came out just prior to the scandal starting showed that the majority of Montanans had yet to form an opinion of him. Weeks of headlines about the scandal and each new revelation were effectively his introduction to Montana voters. And if Helena gossip is to be believed, there’s still a lot more to come.

For Bullock, the scandal hurt even more. The governor confirmed he had learned about the Inspector General report while vetting Walsh to join his 2012 ticket. And despite Walsh flunking the vetting, Bullock decided to take a major gamble and put him on the ticket anyway (passing over dozens of actually qualified Democrats). It is quite likely Bullock would have lost his election had the scandal come out during his nail-biter of a gubernatorial run.

So what will Bullock do? Will he double down on his mistake, appoint Walsh and set up another likely political murder-suicide? Will he take the advice of the state’s largest newspaper and appoint former Congressman Pat Williams, the one man everyone knows is both qualified and could effectively represent Montanans’ interests while letting voters decide which direction we would like to go? Will he make a historic choice and choose a woman? While Montana has had 22 senators, they’ve all been men and we haven’t sent a woman to Washington since Jeanette Rankin.

Only time will tell. But one thing is for certain, it will be the biggest decision Bullock has made since he put Walsh on the ticket despite failing vetting. And if history is any guide, a botched choice will not be kind to anyone involved.

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