Democrats always faced a tough fight in Montana trying to hang onto the seat of appointed U.S. Sen. John Walsh. But the race grew even tougher this week with revelations that Walsh apparently plagiarized much of a paper he presented at the U.S. Army War College.
Walsh, a decorated Iraq war veteran, said his failure to properly attribute the work of other scholars in a 2007 paper was due in part to post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I don't want to blame my mistake on PTSD, but I do want to say it may have been a factor," Walsh told the Associated Press after the New York Times on Wednesday detailed examples of his evident plagiarism. "My head was not in a place very conducive to a classroom and an academic environment."
Walsh was appointed in February by Montana's Democratic governor to replace Max Baucus, the state's longtime Democratic U.S. senator, who gave up his seat to become ambassador to China. Part of Walsh's political appeal was his military service record, a reassuring credential in a state with a broad conservative streak.
That is one reason, analysts said, the report of plagiarism may prove so damaging.
"His whole campaign was predicated on his military record and experience, that he's strong and courageous and trustworthy," said David Parker, who teaches political science at Montana State University and has written extensively on campaigns and elections in the state. "This cuts him off at the knees."
Questions also arose earlier about Walsh's military service. In 2010, while serving as adjutant general of the state National Guard, he was reprimanded for pressuring guardsmen to join a private association in which he was seeking a leadership role.
But the latest revelations were particularly ill timed for Walsh, a former lieutenant governor who posted a strong fundraising quarter and had narrowed the gap against the Republican front-runner, Rep. Steve Daines, in recent polls. The plagiarism charges threatened to halt, if not reverse, that momentum.
On Thursday, Democrats voiced their unstinting support for Walsh.
"If you dig down a little bit, I don't think it's that big a deal, I really don't," said Jon Tester, Montana's other Democratic senator. "Look, Walsh is a soldier, he's not an academic. ... And I just think if a person bores down below the surface, it's not near as big a deal as it appears right now."
The Walsh campaign issued a lengthy statement defending his scholarship and listing more than a dozen military honors he had received.
"This story will not change Sen. Walsh's commitment to his campaign, and it does not change his resolve in dealing with the issues that matter most to Montanans," Lauren Passalacqua, a campaign spokeswoman, said in a written statement.
Privately, though, party strategists conceded that it would be more difficult for Walsh to get the outside funding he needs to strongly compete against Daines, especially when there are several races nationally involving Democratic incumbents — in Arkansas, North Carolina and Louisiana, among other states — that appear more winnable.
Republicans need a six-seat gain to take control of the Senate, and strategists for both parties agree that Montana leaned in the GOP's favor even before the plagiarism issue surfaced.
The New York Times report said Walsh failed to attribute several sections of a 14-page paper that he submitted to earn a master's degree from the United States Army War College. In some cases he lifted, word-for-word, passages on U.S. Middle East policy that had been published in other publicly available documents.
Walsh first told the New York Times that he did not believe he had done anything wrong, then brought up post-traumatic stress disorder in speaking with the Associated Press.
Last month, Walsh discussed his experience fighting in Iraq in 2004 and 2005 during a floor speech in which he urged President Obama to show "extreme caution" as he weighed military intervention. "I've seen war up close," Walsh said. "And like too many American families, I've seen the costs of war up close."
Walsh presided over the Senate for the first two hours of its session Thursday, a role often played by junior lawmakers. He later cast a vote on a pending judicial nomination, then avoided reporters in the hallways outside the chamber.
One of the scholars whose work was used by Walsh without attribution expressed mixed feelings.
"Although I don't condone plagiarism, I was surprised and mildly flattered that Sen. Walsh had decided to incorporate so much of my paper into his," Sean M. Lynn-Jones, editor of the quarterly journal International Security and a Harvard research associate, wrote in a Washington Post commentary.
"I also confess to some political ambivalence," he went on. "As a loyal Democrat, I still harbor hopes that there will be a Democratic majority in the Senate after the November 2014 elections. The revelations about Walsh's paper make that outcome a little less likely."