HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana's governor picked Lt. Gov. John Walsh on Friday to be interim U.S. senator, an appointment that could kick-start Walsh's election campaign as Democrats seek to keep the seat — and control of the U.S. Senate — in their hands.
Lt. Gov. John Walsh, 53, is to be sworn in Tuesday to serve the remainder of Democratic Sen. Max Baucus' term. That will give Walsh nine months to build a record as an incumbent as he looks to a potential general-election campaign against a formidable opponent, Republican U.S. Rep Steve Daines.
Walsh said in a news conference that he would keep Montana's interests first and said he would not be "sucked in" to the political culture of Washington.
"There are too many politicians who put their own political agendas ahead of doing what's right, too many folks who don't take their responsibility seriously," Walsh said.
Republicans are seeking to win a net of six seats in November to gain control of the Senate. State GOP leaders, and one of Walsh's Democratic primary opponents, called the appointment "cronyism" and a "backroom deal" designed to boost Walsh's chances in the election.
Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock brushed off questions on whether November's election was a factor in choosing Walsh.
"I'll leave it to the voters to decide what happens in November. But I chose the person that I believed would be most effective," Bullock said.
Daines, a freshman congressman, is the GOP front-runner and has outraised candidates in both parties with more than $1 million in the final three months of 2013.
"I look forward to working with John. It's an honor to go to work each day on behalf of the people of Montana who have entrusted me to serve them. And soon Montanans will have the opportunity to decide who best represents Montana's priorities in the U.S. Senate," Daines said in a statement.
Walsh spent 33 years in the Montana National Guard, and he commanded more than 700 troops in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. He became the state's adjutant general in 2008, resigning from that post in 2012 to run on the bottom half of the Bullock ticket.
Walsh spent less than one year as lieutenant governor, his first elected office, before announcing his candidacy for Baucus' Senate seat last fall.
Despite a short political resume, Walsh said his years of public service in the National Guard and his time as lieutenant governor have prepared him for his new role. He also said he will lean on mentors such as Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
The Senate confirmed Baucus on Thursday as the ambassador to China with a 96-0 vote. Baucus has served in the Senate for 35 years, and he announced last year that he would not seek another term.
Walsh will serve the remainder of Baucus' term, which ends in January 2015.
State law leaves the decision of an interim appointment to the governor, without any mention of how to go about doing it. Republican legislative leaders asked Bullock for transparency in the selection process, but Bullock kept a tight lid on his choice, saying only the person "will represent the interests of all Montanans."
One of those GOP leaders, Montana Senate President Jeff Essmann, criticized Bullock for what he called an "arrogant and high-handed" approach to picking Baucus' replacement.
"Instead of doing what would have been easy, setting up an open and transparent process to listen to the people of Montana, Gov. Bullock ducked and weaved so that he could fulfill his duty and complete a backroom deal that was hatched in Washington to benefit Washington, not Montana," Essmann said.
Walsh has come under fire recently amid reports that he was reprimanded in 2010 by the U.S. Army for pressuring Montana National Guard troops to join the National Guard Association of the United States, a private association for which he was seeking a leadership position. In response, Walsh released more than 400 pages of his military records and said what he did was for the good of the Guard.
Besides Walsh, political newcomer Dirk Adams and former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger also are running for the Democratic nomination.
Bohlinger, who had raised just $10,000 in the final three months of 2013, plus $10,000 of his own money, said he will "probably" drop out of the race because Walsh's appointment comes with the power — and fundraising ability — of incumbency.
"When I was in school, I ran track," Bohlinger said. "I knew that I could never win a 100-yard dash if my opponent had a 40-yard head start."
Bohlinger said he has until March 10 to decide, and will drop out if hasn't seen a significant increase in financial support by then.
Adams said he is staying in the race.
"Montanans don't like political cronyism," Adams said in a statement. "The appointment represents a top-down approach to politics that doesn't work any better for the country than trickle-down economics."