Montanans may have a new U.S. senator even earlier than expected.
Democratic sources say President Barack Obama may select U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont ., to take the place of U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke. Locke announced last month he was stepping down, The Associated Press reports.
Baucus spokesperson Kathy Weber said this morning that she cannot confirm that Obama is considering Baucus, who announced in March he would not run for a seventh term in the Senate, for the ambassador position.
"It's natural that Max would be under consideration given his breadth of experience and depth of knowledge necessary for this important position," she said via email. "He has the credentials; he has the gravitas that make him a natural for this role. Like his mentor, (Montana U.S.) Sen. (Mike) Mansfield, Max truly understands the importance of U.S. relationships in Asia."
His announcement that he would not run for re-election already caused a national stir, with Democrats hoping to retain the seat to keep their majority in the Senate and Republicans gunning to pick it up.
Baucus declined Wednesday to say anything about the ambassadorship Wednesday.
""It's not for me to comment
on. ... ," he told The Associated Press. "This happens every once in a while. Names get floated around."
If Baucus leaves his seat early, Gov. Steve Bullock will appoint his replacement, in the midst of an already-hot campaign.
Bullock has endorsed Democratic senate candidate John Walsh - his lieutenant governor.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester also endorsed Walsh, and Baucus joined Tester in sponsoring a fundraiser for the lieutenant governor, though Baucus declined to comment about the sponsorship.
Former lieutenant governor John Bohlinger, who joined former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer's ticket as a Republican, is running for Baucus' seat as a Democrat.
Livingston-area rancher Dirk Adams, an attorney with a background in banking as well, also is running as a Democrat.
On the Republican side, first-term U.S. Rep. Steve Daines has announced he will run, as has Montana Rep. Champ Edmunds, R-Missoula, and Kalispell air traffic manager David Leaser.
Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the Montana Republican Party, called on Bullock to be "open, transparent and fair" if he appoints someone to fill in the remainder of Baucus' term, rather than playing politics.
Bullock should follow in the footsteps of governors like Chris Christie of New Jersey who appointed "a qualified individual who went to serve out the remainder of the term, representing the people of the state rather than focusing on jumpstarting a political campaign," Greenwood said in a statement released Wednesday night.