A pair of state lawmakers and a bank-regulator-turned-rancher are set to square off Saturday in a special nominating convention to replace embattled U.S. Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.) as the party's nominee this November.
The convention comes after Walsh dropped his bid last week to retain the seat after allegations that he had plagiarized parts of a 2007 paper he submitted for an advanced degree at the U.S. Army War College.
Democrats have an uphill climb to retain of control of the seat held by longtime Sen. Max Baucus before he was tapped to become the U.S. ambassador to China. Walsh's appointment in February by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock gave Democrats faint hope that they could retain the seat, because Walsh's credentials included service in the Montana National Guard and in Iraq.
The plagiarism accusations, first made by the New York Times, undercut that image; Walsh later apologized for any mistakes in attribution before dropping his election bid.
At Saturday's convention, Rep. Amanda Curtis, state Sen. David Wanzenried and rancher Dirk Adams will seek to replace him as the Democratic nominee. Curtis, a first-term state lawmaker from Butte, received the endorsement this week of MEA-MFT, Montana's largest labor union, which represents teachers and state employees.
Polls leading up to Walsh's exit from the race found him trailing U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, the Republican nominee.
"Steve Daines is one of the strongest candidates in the country, was well-positioned to defeat Sen. Walsh and is well-positioned to defeat whichever band-aid candidate Democrats select," said Brad Dayspring, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take control of the Senate, and Montana was one of three states that they had been counting on. The other two are West Virginia and South Dakota, where Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV and Tim Johnson are retiring.
"It's always been clear that Democrats' chances were slim here in Montana," said David Parker, a political science professor at Montana State University. "This is a conservative state in a year where the GOP has national momentum leading up to November. Add in a candidate with little to no money and low name ID, it's nearly impossible to retain this seat."
Republicans also appear increasingly confident in Iowa, where the Democratic candidate, Rep. Bruce Braley, has stumbled repeatedly. But Democrats hope their incumbents in four other closely contested Senate races in North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alaska can pull through.
Curtis said Tuesday she was "encouraged and optimistic" about replacing Walsh on the ballot. "We'll work hard this week and look to secure the support at the convention. ... From there, it's onto November," Curtis said.
Wanzenried, 65, has served in both the state House and Senate, and while speaking to the Billings Gazette on Monday, he said he'll tout experience in state government as a selling point to delegates.
Adams, a former senior federal banking regulator who ran against Walsh in the three-way June Senate primary and captured just 13% of the vote, could self-fund his campaign, making him a lucrative choice, say some analysts.
A third candidate from the June primary, former Montana Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, has not decided if he'll seek out support from delegates at Saturday's convention.
In an interesting twist, an online petition to nominate actor Jeff Bridges -- a Montana resident who in the past has made campaign donations to Gov. Bullock and the state party -- gained traction over the weekend.
About 1,000 people signed the petition on Change.org.
In an interview on Howard Stern's radio show Monday, Bridges said he was flattered by the petition. The Oscar-winning actor said he mentioned the idea to his wife.
"She looks at me and goes, 'Don’t even think about it,'" Bridges said.