HELENA, Mont. — Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., dropped his election campaign Thursday amid accusations 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 a net gain of six seats in November to take Senate control. Even before Walsh’s exit, strategists in both parties considered his Senate race against U.S. Rep. Steve Daines an opportunity to tip one more seat in Republicans’ favor.
The Montana Democratic Party must hold a nominating convention before Aug. 20 to choose a replacement candidate.
Walsh’s withdrawal from the race comes about two weeks after The New York Times reported that in 2007, he had plagiarized large sections of the final paper he completed to earn his master’s degree at the prestigious Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
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Walsh expressed no contrition for the plagiarism in a statement to supporters Thursday, saying only that the “Research paper from my time at the U.S. Army War College has become a distraction from the debate you expect and deserve.”
Hours after Walsh’s announcement, former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said on social media and confirmed that he would not seek the seat. He said he was flattered his name was considered, and he will support whoever emerges as the candidate.
Schweitzer’s name previously circulated as a potential contender for Senate. He rejected a run earlier this year, when he said he wasn’t interested in the seat that opened when six-term Sen. Max Baucus was named U.S. ambassador to China.
Two Montana Democrats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the party was eyeing Nancy Keenan, a former head of NARAL Pro-Choice America, to become its nominee. She did not return messages seeking comment.
Other possible candidates include state Sen. David Wanzenried and former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, who ran against Walsh in the Democratic primary and told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle this week he would be willing to run.
Walsh, a former National Guard commander, said he was leaving the race but will keep the seat he was appointed to until his term ends in January 2015. “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.”
His campaign declined interview requests.
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.
The decision is a boost for Daines, a former technology-company executive from Bozeman who is giving up his House seat after one term to run for Senate.
The Republican said Thursday he respected Walsh’s decision.
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 said part of the blame might lie in his being treated for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after his deployment in Iraq.
He later said he was not blaming PTSD for his mistake.
Walsh had spent 33 years in the Montana National Guard and 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.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.