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Democrats are in jeopardy of losing a U.S. Senate seat they've held for over 100 years. It's one of the Senate seats in Montana. And it's a seat Democrats very much need as they try to keep their Senate majority this year. Incumbent Senator John Walsh faces a plagiarism scandal. The New York Times first reported that his Master's thesis at the Army War College included passages lifted from other papers. Senator Walsh is under pressure to drop out of the campaign. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: On Sunday morning, with haze from wildfires thickening the air, Senator John Walsh addressed a small graduation for officer candidates at the Fort Harrison army base outside Helena.
SENATOR JOHN WALSH: So as your senator and as someone who sat in your seat approximately 30 years ago today, I will always be your partner and a partner to your families.
SIEGLER: For Walsh this should have been a perfect event. He's the only Iraq war veteran in the U.S. Senate. And he, too, graduated from this same training here. Except earlier that morning, Montana's two largest newspapers had printed op-eds calling on him to drop out of the race. The liberal-leaning Missoulian went the furthest, suggesting he should even resign his Senate seat.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Senator, good to see you.
SIEGLER: While shaking hands after the ceremony, the scandal didn't come up. Walsh has only been in the Senate since February, after Max Baucus abruptly resigned. The governor picked Walsh, his lieutenant, to fill out the term. Democrats figured, as a sitting senator, he could gain a leg up in fundraising for a seat that's being heavily targeted by Republicans. But Walsh was long the underdog. And then came the plagiarism scandal.
WALSH: I'm not a quitter. I'm going to continue to fight. And I'm going to fight on behalf of the citizens of Montana.
SIEGLER: Walsh says he can still run a competitive race. He's urging voters to look at his broader military record.
WALSH: I made a mistake on the paper. There's no question about it. I admit I made a mistake. I accept full responsibility for that mistake. And now I've got to move on.
SIEGLER: But plenty of Montanans think he can't, especially in the state capitol of Helena which leans Democratic. Down the hill from the copper-domed capitol building, the Lewis and Clarke Brewery is a popular after-work spot for local politicos. Bob Harrison is a former staffer for Senator Max Baucus and longtime Democratic operative. He says Walsh should've never gotten as high as he did in the party.
BOB HARRISON: I just think that this gentleman had a reasonable career, and it was not stellar and ended up finding himself in a place that was beyond his capacity to deal with.
GEORGE OCHENSKI: This is a guy we're sending there to write law. He couldn't even write his own Master's.
SIEGLER: Across the bar, newspaper columnist George Ochenski says if the party keeps Walsh in, a lot of Democrats will stay home come November.
OCHENSKI: There are people out there - a lot of people - saying why are they doing that? Why are they trying to defend somebody who cheated? I understand why - because they don't have any other candidates to run right now.
SIEGLER: The Democrats' bench isn't deep. Walsh became the party's choice only after the popular former Governor Brian Schweitzer said he wouldn't run. In vast, rural Montana, a candidate's likability is sometimes more important than his or her politics. Even before the plagiarism scandal, this Senate race was widely seen as Republican Steve Daines's to lose.
CONGRESSMAN STEVE DAINES: Yeah. That's right where our family roots were, right here.
SIEGLER: Campaigning in his hometown of Bozeman this week, Daines steered clear of his opponent's scandal.
DAINES: I think Montanans deserve to know the truth and all the facts. But we're just not going to comment on it. We're going to stay focused on working on more jobs and less government.
SIEGLER: Except the Daines' campaign is now running this ad narrated by Daines that shows him fishing with his daughter.
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DAINES: Montana is a place where a handshake means something and your word is your bond.
SIEGLER: Daines says the ad was shot a while back, but it's hard not to draw a connection to the scandal that could force his opponent to drop out. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.
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