By Dan Boyce
HELENA, Montana (Reuters) - Montana's lieutenant governor, John Walsh, was named on Friday to serve out the remaining term of retiring U.S. Senator Max Baucus, a fellow Democrat and longtime incumbent who is vacating his seat early to become ambassador to China.
Walsh's appointment by Montana's Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, does not alter the balance of power in the Democratic-controlled Senate. But it gives Democrats a slight leg in a contest later this year for an open seat.
Walsh is expected to run for a full six-year term in November's congressional elections, when he likely will face a serious Republican challenge in a vast, rural Western state that leans conservative.
"I wanted to appoint someone who I truly believed would wake up each day focused on putting Montana and Montanans first," Bullock said at a press conference in the state capitol building in Helena.
Walsh, 53, served for more than 30 years in Montana's National Guard, including a deployment to Iraq and four years as commander of the Guard, before he was elected lieutenant governor in 2012.
Having held no previous elected office, he has no voting record. But his campaign website cites gun rights at the top of his list of priorities, along with support for agriculture, military veterans, "Montana's outdoor heritage," and job creation.
"There's a lot we need to fix in Washington," Walsh told reporters at the press conference. "There are too many politicians who put their own political agendas ahead of doing what's right, too many folks who don't take responsibility for their actions."
The Montana race in November is seen as one campaign that will determine whether Democrats maintain their Senate majority for the last two years of President Barack Obama's term in office. Democrats currently control 55 of the 100 seats there.
Walsh said he planned last year to run for the seat after Baucus, who headed the powerful Senate Finance Committee, announced he would retire rather than seek re-election. Walsh's interim Senate appointment became widely expected once Baucus decided to vacate his seat early to accept the post as Obama's top diplomatic envoy to China.
His appointment as ambassador was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on Thursday.
NOMINAL BOOST FOR DEMOCRATS
The appointment will allow Walsh to establish a voting record and other advantages of incumbency, such as increasing his visibility and access to potential campaign donors before November's mid-term elections.
The Cook Political Report, a Washington newsletter, rates the Montana race as "Lean Republican," giving Republicans the advantage. That did not change with Walsh's appointment.
Although Baucus, considered a moderate Democrat, was elected to six consecutive six-year terms starting in 1978, a majority of Montana voters last supported a Democratic presidential candidate in 1992, when then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton was running for the White House.
Montana Republicans cast Bullock's appointment of Walsh as a "backroom" deal that gives Walsh an unfair edge. Congressman Steve Daines, Montana's lone member of the U.S. House of Representatives, is regarded as Walsh's most likely opponent.
Daines is typically described as a conservative but has broken ranks on some issues, such as voting to re-open the government during last year's shutdown.
State Republican Party Chairman Will Deschamps criticized the appointment, saying in a statement Bullock had "sent Montanans a clear message that he would rather take marching orders from Barack Obama and (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid than listen to the people of Montana."
Walsh's resignation as lieutenant governor will become effective on Sunday night. He will be sworn-in as a U.S. senator in Washington on Tuesday. Bullock said he would announce soon his choice to replace Walsh as lieutenant governor.
(Additional reporting by David Lawder in Washington, Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Steve Gorman, Paul Simao and David Gregorio)