By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - U.S. Senator John Walsh of Montana has dropped his election bid following a plagiarism scandal, the Montana Democratic Party said on Thursday, leaving Democrats little time to come up with a replacement as Republicans vie to gain control of the Senate.
Walsh, appointed to the post by Montana Governor Steve Bullock earlier this year to replace outgoing Senator Max Baucus, now ambassador to China, was already seen as vulnerable to a strong Republican opponent in advance of November's election.
"I am ending my campaign so that I can focus on fulfilling the responsibility entrusted to me as your U.S. senator," Walsh said about his decision, which follows revelations he lifted without attribution parts of a paper he wrote for a master's degree. Walsh will remain in the Senate until his term ends on Jan. 3, Montana Democratic leaders said.
Walsh's withdrawal, which allows his party to nominate a new candidate before the November election, comes at a time when Democrats are concerned that they may lose control of the Senate.
"This is one of the big races to control the Senate, and one the GOP expects to win," said University of Montana political scientist Jeffrey Green. "By Walsh stepping down, (it) gives the Democrats a chance to come up with a stronger candidate."
Republicans already control the U.S. House of Representatives and need a net gain of six seats to wield a majority in the Senate as well.
Montana Democrats, who as recently as Wednesday said they stood behind Walsh, pressured him to withdraw, the Billings Gazette reported. Yet Bullock and other Democrats praised Walsh on Thursday.
“No man should be judged based on his best or his worst days, yet rather over a lifetime," Bullock said. "It's unfortunate that we live in an era where more money and time is spent trying to find the flaws a candidate may have than weighing what good they can do.”
Republican candidate Steve Daines said only that he respected Walsh's decision.
"I remain focused on working for the people of Montana and fighting for more jobs, less government," Daines said.
Last month, the U.S. Army War College opened an inquiry into accusations that Walsh plagiarized parts of the paper.
The investigation came in the wake of a New York Times report that Walsh may have lifted part of his master's thesis, citing an examination of the 14-page paper he submitted to obtain his degree in 2007.
Walsh's campaign has said he inadvertently misused citations in a research paper, not a thesis.
State officials said they had not been formally advised of Walsh's move. He has until Aug. 11 to formally withdraw, and Montana Democrats have until Aug. 20 to submit the name and file the paperwork and fees for someone new.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Additional reporting and writing by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; Editing by Sandra Maler and Eric Walsh)