HELENA, Mont. — Montana U.S. Sen. John Walsh dropped his election campaign Thursday amid allegations that he plagiarized large portions of a 2007 research project, leaving fellow Democrats to scramble for a replacement with the election less than three months away.
Nationally the development only improves the odds for Republicans, who need to gain a net of six seats in the election to take control of the Senate. Even before Walsh’s exit, strategists in both parties largely considered Montana’s Senate race an opportunity to tip one more seat in Republicans’ favor.
The Montana Democratic Party will hold a nominating convention in the coming weeks to choose a replacement candidate.
Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s name was circulating as a potential contender even before Walsh’s announcement. But Schweitzer rejected the possibility earlier this year when he said he wasn’t interested in the seat that opened up when six-term Sen. Max Baucus was named U.S. Ambassador to China.
In a statement to supporters, Walsh said he was leaving the race but will keep the seat he was appointed to until his term ends in January 2015, when the winner of November’s election is sworn in.
He acknowledged that the controversy surrounding his U.S. Army War College research paper “has become a distraction from the debate you expect and deserve.”
“I am ending my campaign so that I can focus on fulfilling the responsibility entrusted to me as your U.S. Senator,” Walsh said. “You deserve someone who will always fight for Montana, and I will.”
The announcement comes as an Army War College investigation is set to begin Aug. 15 into Walsh’s college paper. The senator previously said he wrongfully cited some passages in the work, but not deliberately.
Lee Newspapers of Montana first reported Walsh’s departure from the race.
His decision is likely to give a boost to U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, who is giving up his House seat to run for Senate. Daines already held a significant fundraising advantage in the race.
State Democrats have until Aug. 20 to hold the nominating convention, which will be comprised of Democratic leaders from each county’s party committee, along with federal and statewide elected officials and the party’s executive board. They will nominate potential candidates who will have a chance to speak at the convention before voting gets underway.
The nominee who receives a majority of votes will be selected as the replacement candidate, according to the party’s rules.
Walsh already had announced his candidacy for the seat when Gov. Steve Bullock appointed him in February to replace Baucus. Republicans blasted Bullock’s appointment of his lieutenant governor as a political move designed to gain an advantage in the elections.
The New York Times revealed the extensive use of unattributed material in Walsh’s paper about the spread of democracy in the Middle East. Walsh originally called it an “unintentional mistake” and told The Associated Press part of the blame might lie in his being treated for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder following his deployment in Iraq.
He later said he was not blaming PTSD for his mistake.
The pressure on Walsh’s campaign grew after the revelations, with the editorial boards of Montana’s three largest daily newspapers calling for him to withdraw his candidacy over the past two weeks.
Meanwhile, senior Democrats in Washington publicly supported their expected nominee but did little to help Walsh and took an arms-length approach as he contemplated his decision.
Montana’s other senator, Democrat Jon Tester, said in a statement that he respected Walsh’s decision and knew it was a difficult one.
“From his 33-year career of military service to his work in the U.S. Senate, John Walsh has courageously devoted himself to our state and our nation, and we all owe him thanks for his service,” Tester said
Walsh is the only U.S. senator who served in the Iraq war. He capped a 33 years in the Montana National Guard, his career rising to state adjutant general before he took his first elected office in 2013 as Bullock’s lieutenant governor in 2013.
Walsh received the Master of Strategic Studies degree from the war college at age 47, a year before he became adjutant general overseeing the Guard and the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.