HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Gov. Steve Bullock joined other Montana political leaders Friday in lauding Max Baucus' 35-year career in the U.S. Senate, but the Democratic governor deflected questions on a possible replacement if Baucus is confirmed as the next ambassador to China.
Bullock Chief of Staff Kevin O'Brien acknowledged the governor will likely have to appoint a replacement for Baucus, but he shed little light about whom Bullock was considering.
"Today is about Max, his commitment to public service and the state of Montana. It appears there will be a vacancy in the U.S. Senate and the governor will ensure that Montana is well represented," O'Brien said.
President Barack Obama said Friday that he will nominate the six-term Montana Democrat to replace Gary Locke as ambassador to China.
Baucus, who earlier this year said he did not intend to run for re-election in 2014, must be confirmed by the Senate, making the timing of his departure uncertain.
Bullock's lieutenant governor, John Walsh, already has announced his candidacy for Baucus' seat in the election, leaving pundits to speculate whether the governor would appoint Walsh to give him an edge in the election.
Walsh told The Associated Press Friday that Bullock has not approached him about a possible appointment.
"I have not thought about that and will not speculate what Gov. Bullock is going to do," Walsh said.
As for whether he believes he is prepared to step in as an interim senator, Walsh said: "I will cross that bridge when I get to it."
Walsh is running for the Democratic nomination against former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, who switched parties to make a Senate run, and political newcomer Dirk Adams.
On the Republican side, U.S. Rep. Steve Daines is considered the early front-runner in the 2014 race against state Rep. Champ Edmunds.
After Obama's announcement Friday, accolades for Baucus streamed in from the Montana Capitol and other members of the state's congressional delegation.
Bullock thanked Baucus for his service, noting that he helped created the Children's Health Insurance Program and "beat back" attempts to privatize Social Security.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said he will miss Baucus' partnership in the Senate, but knows that Baucus will be a "tremendous representative" for the U.S. in China.
Daines said Baucus has been a dedicated public servant and wished him the best in the Senate confirmation process.