The Democratic Escape Plan: How to Hold a Vulnerable Senate Seat

Nathan L. Gonzales December 19, 2013 · 2:47 PM EST

Most handicappers have believed for months that Republicans have a good chance to pick up a Montana Senate seat next year. But once again, Democrats have a plan that just may help them hold that seat. It’s a plan that worked in the past, but will it work once again?

According to multiple media reports, President Barack Obama is set to appoint Democratic Sen. Max Baucus as the next ambassador to China. If Baucus is confirmed and vacates his seat, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock will get to appoint his successor until the November 2014 election. 

Baucus had already announced that he wasn’t seeking re-election, and his party looked to have an uphill climb to keep the seat. (Rothenberg Political Report rates the race as Toss-Up/Tilt Republican.)

Republicans are likely to nominate Rep. Steve Daines, who has already won statewide. Democrats, on the other hand, looked headed for a primary between Lt. Gov. John Walsh, the establishment favorite, and former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger.

There are multiple possible reasons for a Baucus appointment, but one could be an effort by Democrats to give Walsh a leg up in the primary and general elections as a sitting senator, thereby giving him an opportunity to cultivate an independent image and raise his profile.

It’s not clear whether all of that will make a difference, but it seems to be a better scenario than the current trajectory of the race for Democrats.

Democrats have pulled off similar escape plans to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat over the past dozen years.

In 2002, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli was running for re-election. But late that September, when it became clear that he would likely lose to Republican Doug Forrester, Torricelli dropped out of the race with just five weeks to go. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that Democrats could replace him on the ballot. And the party held the seat when former Sen. Frank Lautenberg defeated Forrester, 54 percent to 44 percent.

In 2010, Connecticut Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd took a page out of Torricelli’s playbook. When it became clear that Dodd had taken on so much water from his failed presidential campaign and a flurry of ethical questions that he would lose his bid for re-election, the senator dropped out of the race. The timing was different -- Dodd exited the race in January of the election year -- but the outcome was much the same when state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal went on to hold the seat for Democrats in the fall.

Of course, neither of those examples included a Senate appointment, but both were attempts to salvage a Senate seat. And they were successful.

But when it comes to appointed senators running for election in a competitive state, the sample is too small to draw sweeping conclusions.

Republicans Roger Wicker of Mississippi, John Barrasso of Wyoming, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Democrats Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York were appointed and subsequently elected in their own right. But each matched the partisan lean of his or her state in federal races.

In terms of competitive states, Democrat Michael Bennet was appointed to the Senate from Colorado in Jan. 2009. He was elected nearly two years later, 48 percent to 46 percent, over polarizing GOP nominee Ken Buck. A stronger Republican nominee might well have defeated Bennet given the strong Republican partisan wave that was apparent nationally. Bennet had never held elective office before. His campaign manager, Guy Cecil, runs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee now.

Republican Dean Heller was appointed to the Senate from Nevada in May 2011. He was elected 18 months later, 46 percent to 45 percent over Rep. Shelley Berkley. Heller had previously represented a third of state in the House, as had Berkley.

Democrat Jean Carnahan was appointed to the Senate from Missouri in Jan. 2001, after the death of her husband. She lost election nearly two years later, 50 percent to 49 percent, to Republican Jim Talent. Carnahan had never held elective office before, but her late husband was a statewide official for many years.

There is obviously no guarantee that Walsh will win in 2014 if he is appointed to fill the remainder of Baucus’s term. But Democrats clearly feel that they need to shake up the contours of the Montana Senate race to improve their prospects, and appointing someone who can introduce himself to voters now and then seek a full term at least does that.