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Newest Senator Will Test (Historically Limited) Potency of Appointed Incumbency

( Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
( Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Although John Walsh will become the newest senator  on Tuesday, the historical record and the political temperature in Montana suggest he’ll have no better chance of winning this fall’s Senate race than he did before.  

The conventional wisdom is that Gov. Steve Bullock has done his hand-picked lieutenant governor and fellow Democrat a phenomenal favor by sending him to Washington now. The post offers guaranteed visibility that will enhance his name recognition, the benefits of being on the inside that will boost his fundraising and the powers of the job that will allow him to deliver in ways that will prove the power of incumbency impossible to beat.  

In fact, that’s hardly been the rule in the past, and it hardly looks to be reliably the case this year.  

Walsh’s name will be added to the roster of 51 appointed senators of the past half-century . But of that group, only 19 of the 36 who tried went on to leverage the advantages of incumbency into election in their own right — a 56 percent success rate. Another 15 were placeholders who got out of the way at the next election.  

And the final two, both tapped at the end of 2012, will now be joined by Walsh in seeing their places in that database decided this year. Each falls into a different camp. Tim Scott, a House member who moved to the Senate when Jim DeMint quit to take over The Heritage Foundation, is a shoo-in to secure a victory this fall in conservative South Carolina. He stands to become the first African-American Republican to win a Senate election since Edward Brooke won his second term in Massachusetts in 1972.  

Brain Schatz, Hawaii’s lieutenant governor before Daniel K. Inouye died, is in by far the hottest Democratic tussle for a Senate nomination this year — a vituperative and politically byzantine contest against Rep. Colleen Hanabusa. If he loses their August showdown, Schatz will be the first appointee spurned in a primary since 1996, when Sheila Frahm of Kansas (named when Bob Dole resigned to run full time for president) was defeated for the GOP nod by Sam Brownback, then a House member running to her right and now a governor favored to win a second term.  

And Walsh? At least for now, he remains right where he was last week: the prohibitive favorite to secure the Democratic nomination, but a slight underdog in November. In a state where President Barack Obama’s popularity stands at 33 percent according to Gallup , and which Mitt Romney carried by 13 points, the edge still belongs to the highly likely GOP nominee, Rep. Steve Daines, a software company multimillionaire who’s held Montana’s solitary House seat since last year. Daines had more than four times as much cash on hand — $1.9 million in the bank — as Walsh when the year began.  

Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rates the Senate race Tilts Republican, and my colleagues who make those calls have decided Walsh’s appointment provides an insufficient reason for changing that assessment.  

Thirty-eight weeks is many lifetimes in politics, of course, and only a few weeks ago the Capitol was gob-smacked by the news that the seat was opening sooner than expected — because Max Baucus was ready to abandon the Senate in advance of his year-end retirement so he could become ambassador to China .  

But if Walsh is defeated, it will bring to an end a recent winning streak for appointees. The last seven who have stood for election succeeded, four of them after intense contests, and all remain in office today. (That string started with Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski in 2004; the most recent addition was fellow Republican Dean Heller of Nevada in 2012.) The last loser, in 2002, was Missouri Democrat Jean Carnahan, who was appointed when her husband, Gov. Mel Carnahan, was elected to the Senate three weeks after perishing in a plane crash.  

Regardless of whether he prevails in the fall, Walsh has already perpetuated one long-standing precedent for senatorial appointments: Governors very often choose someone from their innermost circles for such prestigious assignments. (Both of the recent placeholders before special elections lived up to type: Republican Jeff Chiesa had been transition director and chief counsel for Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Democrat William “Mo” Cowan was chief of staff to Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts.)  

Bullock transformed Walsh’s career two years ago, tapping as his running mate someone who had never held elected office before. Instead, he had been the state’s adjutant general since 2008, capping a 33-year career in the Montana National Guard that included commanding more than 700 troops during a deployment to Iraq in 2004 and 2005. Their ticket prevailed in one of the most competitive gubernatorial races of 2012, decided by less than 8,000 votes. (Obama fell 66,000 votes shy of beating Romney in Montana, and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester won a then-Tossup Senate contest by just under 20,000 votes.)  

“I wanted to appoint someone who I believed would represent the values Montanans hold important,” the governor said in announcing his choice at a Feb. 7 news conference, where Walsh vowed not to be “sucked in” to the capital’s political vortex.  

Both sentiments are previews of evolutions in the Democrat’s campaign themes, and Republicans scoffed at them with November just as much in mind. Giving Walsh a head start in the Senate, said GOP state Senate President Jeff Essmann, was “a backroom deal that was hatched in Washington to benefit Washington, not Montana.”  

Who wins that messaging war will offer clues about the current potency of appointed senatorial incumbency.

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